Regularly shown among the top 100, Columbia has been ranked as high as No. 2 on Money magazine's annual best places to live in the United States. Often lauded for its business atmosphere, our city is also described as fun and sophisticated as well. But we do not need Money magazine to tell us that.
However, there is one area in which Columbia has ranked No. 1 for upward of two decades — the annual Memorial Day Weekend Celebration organized and presented by the Salute to Veterans Corp. The Memorial Day weekend is the culmination of a six-day celebration "to honor and remember those who served and those currently serving."
This celebration is unique: It is all volunteer (3,000-plus); it has but one purpose — to honor and remember veterans for their sacrifice; and it includes an all-military air show and parade free to the public (no admission or parking fees). It doesn't get any better than this.
Such is the organization, popularity and continued growth of this celebration that this year marks its 24th anniversary. It did not happen by accident — it is the brainchild of Mary McCleary Posner, who breathed life into the Memorial Day celebration and, like the pied piper, picked up the entourage of loyal supporters along the way.
Following a successful career of managing corporate clients in New York, Mary returned to Columbia in 1987. As she tells it, she asked her mother how Memorial Day was celebrated here, and the response was something to the effect of "a group of old veterans gather at the courthouse" and not much more.
To Mary, that was patently unsatisfactory, for she believed the brave veterans of our nation's wars deserved recognition for their service. Being Mary, she did not half step but went to "General Quarters" and, along with her husband, Alan, formed the Salute to Veterans Corp. In 1989, they funded the first parade along with the aircraft and the fuel.
Since that small beginning, the Salute to Veterans Air Show and Parade has enjoyed remarkable spectator appeal to grow to its present six-day celebration. Featuring demonstrations by both modern and vintage aircraft, U.S. and Canadian parachute teams, static displays of aircraft and military equipment, appearances by distinguished honored guests and a Memorial Day Parade of up to 150 units, the celebration is enjoyed by thousands.
The honored guests have included a who's who of American heroes: Medal of Honor recipients such as Gen. Ray Davis, U.S. Marine Corps; former prisoners of war; Pearl Harbor survivors; Col. Travis Hoover, who piloted the second aircraft on the Doolittle raid on Japan in 1942; Tung-Sheng Liu, the Chinese national who led Hoover and his crew to safety; Col. Charles McGee and the Tuskegee pilots and crews; and members of the Women Airforce Service Pilots, to name just a few.
The week — featuring a living history program, visits to local schools, a Friday private air show for veterans in old soldiers' homes and VA hospitals, the two-day air show and Monday parade — will culminate with the courthouse ceremony honoring those who are no longer with us.
As a 16-year member of Mary's 3,000-plus volunteers (to serve with Mary Posner is a way of life — it is virtually impossible to say no as she can sell Popsicles to Eskimos), I highly recommend attending the air show and the parade as a minimum. The blend of Armed Forces veterans with those now serving and soon to serve is an inspiring mixture of leadership and developing leaders.
While the Salute to Veterans Celebration has flourished with continuous growth, thanks to the volunteers' labor of love and community support, it has not always been a bed of roses. There exists in Columbia a faction that either does not understand the "honor and remember" sentiment earned by veterans and those now serving or simply chooses not to do so.
Instead, this group attempts to paint the Salute to Veterans Celebration as merely an effort to glorify war, promote the military-industrial complex and entice the young and impressionable to enlist in the Armed Forces. Toward accomplishing their aims, the group's members have resorted to protests, lawsuits, attempted disruptions of events and a gauntlet of naysayers armed with placards and petitions at the entrance — all with the goal of shutting down the celebration.
Fortunately, the celebration's supporters have outvoted the protesters with increased attendance and by largely ignoring the nonsense and nuisance of the protest. After all, it is quite a stretch to believe a theme to "Honor and Remember" glorifies war. Those who have experienced combat are far more peace loving than those who align themselves against the veterans who stood in harm's way to guarantee their right to protest.
Finally, being involved with the Salute to Veterans Celebration has been a highlight of my retirement years. Mary Posner's vision — coupled with the enthusiasm of the volunteers and of the surrounding community in honoring the memory of those who have gone before as well as the current and future veterans — is inspiring. Respect is contagious.
To those who, for whatever reason, think this celebration is distasteful, I remind you: Be glad these aircraft and other weapons are ours. Without the indomitable service of the veterans and those now serving, it could represent the war machinery of a conquering nation.
J. Karl Miller retired as a colonel in the Marine Corps. He is a Columbia resident and can be reached via email at JKarlUSMC@aol.com. Questions? Contact Elizabeth Conner.