The annual Veterans Appreciation Day luncheon in Danville proved again Monday to be such a force of nature itself, even the nastiest elements could do little to keep people away.
Now in its fifth year, the event hosted by the Heritage Hospice veterans committee drew a crowd of 1,342 people to the National Guard Armory. The crowd included veterans from Boyle, Garrard, Lincoln and Mercer counties and beyond. Hospice provider liaison Sharon Martin, who has headed the committee since it started, said there also were 203 first-time attendees at the event.
“It’s amazing when you think about everyone coming out in the cold and the rain,” said Martin, who admitted the early trickle of people coming through the door made her think there might be a smaller crowd this year.
Cold rain didn’t deter a large crowd from showing up, though.
“When you’re in the Army, the rain doesn’t make any difference, and you go on anyway,” said Charles Day, 81, of Garrard County, who served in the Army during the Korean War.
Day is one of many veterans who attend multiple gatherings surrounding the Nov. 11 holiday. He went to Camp Nelson on Sunday and was headed to another gathering Monday evening, but the celebration at the armory has become one of his favorites.
“I come to see all the veterans because that’s something special,” said Day, lamenting the fact that fewer people in other generations have the shared bond of service. “As long as I’m living, we’ll be here.”
While attendance at the Danville event has gotten bigger every year, the population of World War II veterans as a whole has decreased rapidly. That made it all the more moving for organizers and attendees when the total number who came forward to be honored for their service during World War II grew from 38 in 2011 to 56 this year.
Boyle resident Norman Walker, 87, was still dapper in his original Navy uniform decked out with numerous medals from time on ships during World War II. Walker relishes the chance to interact with those who share the experience of serving their country when the world was at war, but came to the armory for the second time for another reason.
“The main reason I’m here is really to thank all the people who put on this dinner,” Walker said.
The luncheon has become such a big draw and a part of Heritage Hospice’s outreach program with veterans, other organizations have started trying to emulate its success.
Sharon Branham, director of Appalachian Hospice Care based in Pikeville, was at the armory on Monday to see first hand what the Danville group does. She was impressed and plans to take back what she’s learned to eastern Kentucky for a similar event.
“They do it better than any group in the state,” Branham said.
Heritage Hospice Director Janelle Wheeler said when national Hospice Foundation began emphasizing care for and outreach to veterans several years ago, the local organization already had initiated its four-county veterans appreciation concept. In addition to the Pikeville group, she said others, including Owensboro, have inquired about how to establish something similar.
For Martin, the number of people who attend the lunch, as well as those who volunteer to help, is overwhelming. What started five years ago as a committee of eight has grown to include 30 people who meet year-round to plan.
Once again, the Masonic lodges in Boyle, Garrard and Mercer counties prepared fish and barbecue, Indian Hills Christian Church made dozens of deserts, and students at Danville Christian Academy served it all up with an assist from many elected officials and other community members. This year, Martin said, there were more than 90 students from other schools, including the Boyle County Middle School Student Council, who made signs and cheered for veterans as they came in the building.
Gerald Merriman of Danville, an Army veteran, has been a member of the committee since the first Veterans Appreciation Day luncheon. He is one of many veterans who also want to be a part of staging the event.
“The veterans really needed something like this to get together and share that camaraderie, and this has provided that,” Merriman said.
The planning has allowed the group to build up a database of hundreds of veterans, all of whom receive a commemorative hat and a certificate of appreciation whether they can attend the actual luncheon or not. Martin said there are people making deliveries to veterans’ homes throughout the day.
Visit the photo gallery to see more of the weekend's events.