Local residents came out in large numbers Thursday for a special event to honor and appreciate veterans and their sacrifice for the country.
"Wave 'Em If You Have 'Em" was the prelude to Operation Bugle Boy's Veterans Appreciation Night. Operation Bugle Boy is a nonprofit organization that honors veterans, soldiers and first responders, and it holds the appreciation night every year.
This year, they honored several Purple Heart veterans from Missouri.
The veterans and their guests traveled in a motorcade from Candlewood Suites on Amazonas Drive to the Knights of Columbus Hall in St. Martins where the organization provided a free dinner for 500 military veterans and their guests.
People, young and old, lined the motorcade route, showing banners and waving flags incorporating yellow ribbons as the motorcade passed on its way to the event.
The yellow ribbon is a symbol of gratitude for veterans' service.
One of the Purple Heart veterans was retired U.S. Marine Bryce Lockwood, of Strafford.
While serving temporary orders on the U.S.S. Liberty in 1967, he survived an Israeli torpedo attack and airstrikes that killed 34 Americans and wounded 174. The U.S. and Israeli governments found the attacks to be accidental and said the Liberty was mistaken for an Egyptian ship.
However, Lockwood said the ship was clearly marked, and the Israelis shot down the U.S. flag, which was replaced and shot down again.
Lockwood struggled to save a man near him who had a shattered femur and was choking on sea water, which was becoming mixed with fuel from a ruptured fuel tank. He briefly lost consciousness himself, but he was able to get the man to safety.
Lockwood received the Purple Heart for the injuries he received in the incident. He was the only Marine to survive the attack.
"It was absolutely a deliberate attempt to sink a ship and start a war with Egypt to try and start a war," Lockwood said. "Events like Operation Bugle Boy are very humbling for those like myself who have served our country."
The featured speaker at this year's Veterans Appreciation Night was Donna Rowe, a retired U.S. Army triage nurse who served in Vietnam.
Rowe has spoken with various local groups over the past few days about her experiences, including a Thursday afternoon crowd at Calvary Lutheran High School. She has been honored for being part of a team that never lost a patient during her 12-month tour.
"This is so important because I don't think there's anyone who understands the Purple Heart recipient better than the nurses that healed them," she said.
Rowe said she has been speaking out about the courage and sacrifice she saw from soldiers in an effort to counter what she feels has been a false narrative about troops acting as "demons" in Vietnam.
"When we came home, we were called baby killers, and people testified in the U.S. Senate against us, calling us all kinds of names — and all that was not true," Rowe said.
She shared a story about a baby girl brought into her unit who had been severely wounded and passed over for treatment by other hospitals.
The troops that brought the child in had been involved in a fight with the enemy and in a pile of bodies, they heard the cries of a baby and dug through the carnage to find the child still in the arms of its mother, who was dead. They couldn't get the child out of the mother's grasp because her body was in rigor, and her arms couldn't be moved. So they took the mother and baby together and flew them out of the area and eventually to the unit where Rowe was stationed.
After getting the baby out of her mother's grasp, Rowe and her team discovered the girl was wounded, dehydrated and malnourished. Without immediate treatment, she'd die.
Surgery was performed and the child survived. During her recovery, Rowe and other unit members fed her and made clothes for her. The girl was later adopted by an American solider and went to America. Thirty-three years later, Rowe met the girl, now grown and with a family and children in California.
"When this story broke, my mother told me, 'Donna, God has ordained you to be the speaker for the Vietnam vets,'" she said. "I take that role very seriously because I know the pain I felt when I came home and saw my country had turned against me and my fellow veterans. I'm over that pain, and I'm moving on to tell the true story and to bring back patriotism to this country."
Rowe said the magnitude of an event like Operation Bugle Boy is very unusual.
"This kind of event is unique because not all communities bring their citizens forward that deserve recognition," Rowe said. "I'm so impressed with the citizens here. They truly are patriots."