With a 21-gun salute and “Taps” during a brief wreath-laying ceremony at the grave of Harry Truman, veterans and active-duty personnel were honored and remembered Monday.
“Days like today tie us to the heroes of the past,” said Gen. George W. Casey Jr. (ret.), former commander of coaltion forces in Iraq and former Army Chief of Staff.
The event was the second annual Honorable Ike Skelton Veterans Day Ceremony. Casey said Skelton had asked him to speak at the event a few months ago – and characteristically, Casey said, the former congressman didn’t mention that the program was in Skelton’s honor.
Skelton, a Democrat from Lexington, Mo., who served 34 years in Congress, including four as chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, died two weeks ago from complications of pneumonia.
On Monday, Congressman Emanuel Cleaver, who said Skelton “became my older brother, the brother I never had,” at first spoke slowly, gathering his words and his emotions.
“He was the military’s friend. He was a champion of the warrior,” Cleaver said.
Cleaver related much of the Skelton story: a 14-year-old Wentworth Military Academy cadet stricken with polio, ending his dreams of attending West Point. He went for treatment at Warm Springs, Ga., where President Franklin Roosevelt had been treated for polio and invested much of his own fortune in advancing care and cures.
Skelton lost muscle – the use of an arm – Cleaver said, but he strengthened his mind, learning to put one’s own needs behind those of family, community and country. He jumped into politics: Lafayette County prosecutor, state senator, congressman.
Casey said three key events in the early 1980s – the failed attempt to rescue American hostages in Iran; the bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut, killing 241 service personnel; and the invastion of Grenada – convinced Skelton of the need for changes in the military.
“So Ike became seized with the need for reform,” Casey said, a cause he pursued for years along with looking out for the welfare of those in uniform and pushing for better education and training for officers.
“We are a better and more capable military today because of Skelton,” Casey said.
Cleaver also touched on a couple lighter moments. A scene in Congress: The University of Kansas wins a national championship a few years ago, and the House votes on a congratulatory resolution. The other eight members of Congress from Missouri gather around Skelton. Are we voting for this, they ask?
“Are you crazy?” Cleaver recalls Skelton saying. “Of course not.”
The delegation votes no – but then Skelton waits, and goes back, and changes his vote, as do the rest.
“Ike Skelton was one of a kind,” Cleaver said. “I never heard him speak ill of others – even in the midst of a campaign.”
Casey said the nation must do a better job of taking care of its veterans, including in the hiring of veterans. Those in the military demonstrate selflessness and sacrifice, protecting the country and its freedoms, he said.
“And they remind us that those freedoms are never free,” he said.