VILONIA — United States Marine Corps Veteran James Gibson of Vilonia told an audience of about 400 Saturday that if they would look into any veterans hospital or day room of any military establishment they could find plenty "of deserving men and women," who could have their lives changed by someone saying only a couple of words to them.
Many veterans, he said, have never heard the words "thank you."
Gibson was the guest speaker for the program at the Museum of Veterans and Military History honoring veterans. He learned the worth of the words, he said, a few years ago while serving as a deputy sheriff near Fort Hood, Texas. He stopped to help a young soldier, dressed in his uniform, changing a flat tire in 110-degree weather. He thanked the soldier for his service and gave him a card with his name on it. To his surprise, Gibson said, the soldier walked into the sheriff’s office the next day and asked to speak to him. Gibson learned the soldier had been considering taking his life — not just that day but for a couple of weeks. Gibson believes his actions that day may have saved the young man’s life.
"He said that he had never been thanked for his service," Gibson said. "When I tell you that a thank you, with conviction, can save a life, yes it can."
Veterans carrying 100 American flags, each hoisted in the air on poles, filed past the standing crowd. Every branch of service and many eras were represented by the current and past soldiers. Those posting flags included both combat and non-combat soldiers. World War II Veterans, Korean Veterans, Vietnam Veterans as well as those still serving held their heads high. The songs "Traveling Soldier" and "God Bless the USA" were sung by Sarah Bradford of Vilonia, as veterans made their way to their posting spot.
Prior to the ceremony, more than 100 runners and walkers participated in a 5K Race event, where they ran or walked in honor of a fallen soldier. Air Force veteran Bernice Tackett of Vilonia, walked in honor of Army Spec. Erich S. Smallwood, 23, of Trumann, A Company, 875th Engineer Battalion of the Arkansas National Guard who died May 26, 2007 near Balad, Iraq, from wounds suffered when a roadside bomb detonated near his vehicle. His name and brief biography was in her registration materials when she picked up her packet. She did not know him but attached the soldier's photograph to her shirt, she said, to remind her of his sacrifice while she walked the route.
The race completed, Tackett was one of the former soldiers who also posted a flag at the museum ceremony. When she posted the flag, she was carrying in its holder, she glanced down and was surprised to see the photo of the same young soldier she had honored during her walk. His photo was identical to the one attached to the metal wire in the ground. She questions the coincidence. This part of the program was unrehearsed and random.
"I still don’t know what all this meant today but I do know I will not forget Army Spec. Erich S. Smallwood," she said. "Today was a very moving day for me. When I looked and saw both were the same, chill bumps ran from my head to my toes. No, I’m not likely to ever forget him or this day."