LANCASTER — Community members joined together in the Veterans Court of Honor at Lancaster Cemetery on Monday to celebrate Veterans Day.
“We celebrate those veterans who answered the call in times of peace and in times of war,” Dayle DeBry, manager of the Antelope Valley Cemetery District, said in her opening remarks.
Gerry Rice, an Army veteran who served with the 4th Infantry, 101st Airborne Division, was the guest speaker. In Vietnam, Rice served as a scout dog handler stationed two hours north of Saigon.
“In scout dog school I was being trained first-time theater specific to do the job of walking point with a German shepherd on infantry patrols,” Rice said. “Now, as an infantry man you’re going to draw the short straw sometime, and if you’re going to walk point you might as well have somebody up there that knows what they’re doing, and that would be the dog, not me.”
Rice’s dog was on his third tour.
“I learned from him. He didn’t learn anything from me,” Rice added.
Rice and his dog were inseparable.
“We were a synchronous unit,” he said.
Four thousand dogs served in Vietnam; only 200 made it back. The rest were euthanized, or written off as equipment. Rice’s dog suffered several injuries during his service. He ultimately died from a twisted stomach.
“I did have closure that other dog handlers didn’t have,” Rice said.
Rice spent 22 months active as a soldier, and the last 50 years as a veteran.
He used the GI bill to get a bachelor’s degree in 1974. He got a master’s degree in 1996.
“My veteran status was a static thing that kept coming at me several times year. … And I would be reminded of the trauma that I had experienced,” Rice said.
Rice met other local veterans in 2002 when he visited a moving wall at Sgt. Steve Owen Memorial Park, then-called Lancaster City Park.
“They were living better with their Vietnam experiences, way better than I was,” said Rice, who suffered with PTSD.
Rice later embraced his veteran status. He put his master’s degree in clinical psychology to work helping himself and other veterans.
“Now, I am in the embrace of that status. And all of you here that are veterans are living witnesses of what happened … Those who live through war, live with war,” Rice said.
Rice is now dedicated to helping people talk about their experiences. He helps people heal marriages and relationships with family.
“I’m helping them live better with PTSD and all the other affects of combat,” Rice said.
Rice added: “You can walk point without a German shepherd but I don’t recommend it. You can live your life as a veteran without the help of other veterans, without the community that you see here, but I wouldn’t recommend that either. It’s just good to have that support.”
Korean War veteran Bishop Henry Hearns of Living Stone Cathedral of Worship gave the invocation. Sylvia Gaxiola sang the National Anthem.
“We get to enjoy all of our freedoms because of what the veterans that are here and who we’re honoring today (did),” Lancaster City Councilmember Ken Mann said. “If it wasn’t for them we wouldn’t be who we are, and specifically wouldn’t be the proud people of the United States.”
Palmdale Mayor Steve Hofbauer thanked the Lancaster Cemetery for its ongoing tradition to honor veterans.
“It warms my heart to see the way the Antelope Valley just embraces our veterans,” Hofbauer said.
Dave Owens, chairman of the Antelope Valley Cemetery District Board of Directors, Director Richard Cook, Antelope Valley Blue Star Mothers and Antelope Valley Marine Corps League placed the service wreaths.
Chris Parke played the bagpipes, and gave a brief history lesson.
“You know over 1,000 pipers died in World War I,” Parke said. “They jumped out of the trenches and led their troops to battle, unarmed, only to get the skirl of the blood going. That proved to be not such a good thing for pipers, so that was eliminated after World War I.”
However, Bill Millin, a Scottish bagpiper, played at Normandy, leading all the allied troops onto the beaches of Normandy, Parke added.
“So I play taps for all those pipers, and certainly of course for all those serviceman who have died over the years,” Parke said.