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Mother Nature tried to dampen Columbus’ Memorial Day celebration, but she couldn’t stop it.

More than 100 people on Monday morning packed the American Legion for the Memorial Day program put on by the area’s veteran organizations, American Legion Hartman Post 84, Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 3704, Disabled American Veterans (DAV) Chapter 20 and AMVETS Post 10, in conjunction with the City of Columbus.

The decision to move the program from its normal location in Frankfort Square to the building on the east side of town was made about 7 a.m. Monday and quickly spread through phone calls, word of mouth, The Telegram’s Facebook page and radio. Longtime American Legion member Dave Oppliger said wet conditions from the rain the night before and early Monday forced organizers’ hands.

“It’s one decision you don’t want to make, but you don’t want people walking through wet grass and water from the leaves coming down on them,” he said. “You don’t know what it’s going to be doing, so you’ve got to make the decision. We’re very fortunate people realize this is an annual event.”

The vets' groups got some help from Boy Scouts of America Troop 276 of Columbus, who helped set up chairs and tables, as well as handed out American flags and programs. Troop members Bryce Follette, Keith Howland and Christopher Howland greeted folks as they made their way into the building.

“Memorial Day is the day I can remember people like my great grandpa - he was in the Air Force …” Bryce said. “It’s a good day I can remember what everyone did for the country.”

Cars filled up the Legion’s parking lot and the one across Third Avenue. Inside the venue, a sea of people young and old filled the main room holding their American flags.

Originally known as Decoration Day, Memorial Day originated in the years following the Civil War and became an official federal holiday in 1971, according to history.com. It's meant to remember and honor the men and women who died while serving in the U.S. Armed Forces.

American pride was on full display throughout the morning that featured quite the lineup. Hartman Post 84 Chorus gave rousing renditions of “God Bless America” and “This Land Is Your Land,” there was the reciting of the Gettysburg Address by Columbus High School’s Nicholas Stoeckle, the roll call of the dead, the salute to the dead and the spirited performance of taps by Hartman Post 84 Honor Guard Bugler. Pastor Ernest Smith provided the invocation and benediction.

But former Columbus High School teacher Col. Gerald ‘Jerry’ Meyer summarized the day’s meaning in grand fashion at the end of his keynote address. To do so, Meyer, who played a pivotal role in the creation of the Andrew Jackson Higgins National Memorial in Columbus and is now a historian at the Nebraska National Guard Museum, quoted George S. Patton.

“‘It is foolish and wrong to mourn the men who died. Rather we should thank God that such men lived,’” he said. “Perfect, isn’t it? The morning’s over. We should be thanking God that such men and women lived. So this Memorial Day, keep the faith to the spirit of the day and thank God for the men and women who lived and died for our new birth of freedom.”

He then talked about how eight years ago he lost 12 of his friends who were killed by a suicide bomber while they were all serving in Afghanistan, noting the importance in living each day to honor the sacrifice made by the brave men and women who lost their lives while protecting the freedom that defines America.

“You live in the greatest country in the world. Trust me,” the U.S. veteran said, referencing his time overseas during his multi-decade-long military career. “You are blessed with the freedom that has been paid for by the veterans on faraway battlefields.”

He concluded with “God Bless America,” and his words undoubtedly touched many who were in attendance as they offered up their applause almost instantly.

After the ceremony, many vets could be seen walking around with big smiles and enjoying one another’s company. Among them were Hartman Post 84 Honor Guard members Jim Baldwin and Randy Schaefer. They said they enjoyed Meyer’s address, as well as the whole ceremony and seeing so many people come out to be part of it.

“I thought it was great,” said Baldwin, a U.S. Army veteran. “It really touches your heart to see that kind of support and knowing people still are proud of living here and can be part of this country. We’ve got a lot of young people stepping up and joining the service that we really appreciate.”

Schaefer agreed.

“As a former Marine, it really makes me proud to see all the support we get from around the area - not only in Columbus, but the surrounding towns, as well,” he said.

They also praised Honor Guard Sgt. Michael Landkamer, with Schaefer calling him a great guy and a hard worker.

Landkamer said the ceremony was once again a special event thanks, in part, to the Columbus community for its support.

“Wonderful, thoughtful, caring,” he said. “It was just very nice. People here really care about our veterans and their families.”

Indeed. Besides the large crowd at the ceremony, cemeteries in Columbus appeared busy throughout the day as people stopped by and decorated the area of their loved ones who were veterans.

Nebraska State Sen. of District 22 Mike Moser, of Columbus, praised the community after the festivities concluded.

“It was a great ceremony. It was great to see Col. Meyer back,” Moser said. “The support for the veterans in Columbus is just great.”

Matt Lindberg is the managing editor of The Columbus Telegram. Reach him via email at matt.lindberg@lee.net.

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