Columbia says ‘thank you’ to veterans

jwilkinson@thestate.comNovember 11, 2013 

For C.W. Bowman of Irmo, Monday’s Veterans Day parade in Columbia wasn’t just an opportunity to salute the flag, thank a vet or enjoy the marching bands.

It was a time to remember fallen friends.

Bowman did two tours of duty in Vietnam in 1967 and 1968 as a tunnel rat, sniper and munitions specialist.

“I remember all my buddies. The ones who didn’t make it back,” the retired Army staff sergeant said, fighting back tears. “This is for them.”

Monday’s parade, billed as one of the largest in the Southeast, featured 82 groups, up from 76 last year, highlighted by a Bradley fighting vehicle from the S.C. Army National Guard, an attack helicopter on a flatbed truck from the Celebrate Freedom Foundation and a couple of mine-resistant vehicles from the Columbia Police and the Richland County Sheriff’s departments.

It took one hour and 40 minutes for the parade down Sumter Street to pass by the Washington Street reviewing stand. Mayor Steve Benjamin and Brig. Gen. Bradley Becker, Fort Jackson’s new commander and the parade’s grand marshal, stood the entire time, waving and saluting each passing unit.

“Two of the most powerful words in the English language are ‘thank you,’ ” Benjamin said. “Today, Columbia and the Midlands come together to say thank you to those who keep us safe.”

Becker, who took over the reins of the nation’s largest military-training installation, said the parade cemented in his mind Columbia’s reputation as one of the most military-friendly communities in the nation.

“I haven’t seen anything like this in years,” he said. “Pretty impressive.”

The parade began on a solemn note, as Benjamin asked the large crowd that lined Sumter Street to pause for a moment of silence for Ike McLeese, chief executive of the Greater Columbia chamber of Commerce, who passed away last month after heart surgery. McLeese, 69, was a civilian aide to the secretary of the Army and a fixture at each year’s Veterans Day parade as well as any other military event that involved Fort Jackson or McEntire Joint National Guard Base.

McLeese was instrumental in the bases surviving and expanding during the 2005 round of base closings.

“The military had no better friend than Ike McLeese,” Benjamin said.

But celebration and thanks were the hallmarks of the day as large crowds, including many children, waved flags and cheered active-duty personnel and veterans groups alike.

Third-grade teacher Marie Phillips was helping to shepherd 110 students from nearby St. Peters Catholic School.

“It’s important that the children learn to pay tribute to those who serve our country,” she said. “Plus the kids need to know there is more to life than sitting in a classroom.”

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