When Vietnam Veteran and former Army officer Tom Higdon stepped up to the podium as the guest speaker for the annual Newton County Veterans Day Ceremony, hosted by the county commissioners, he held the crowd's attention from the first word.
"It's an honor to be here for Veteran's Day,” he said. “It is always a honor when someone comes up and thanks me for my service, just because I have on a veteran's hat, they say 'thank you.'"
Newton County Presiding Commissioner Marilyn Ruestmann opened the event by welcoming all those who attended the event held last week since the observance fell on Sunday this year.
"It's 11 a.m., a very special time to remember a very special event,” Ruestmann said. “The day that the Armistice was signed in 1918 at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month. Veterans are specially welcomed and we are willing to help you with anything,"
"It never gets old to honor veterans," Commissioner Jim Jackson said. Jackson is a Navy veteran from the Vietnam War era.
Alan Cook, also a county commissioner also spoke at the event.
"This Sunday will mark 100 years since the end of World War I, the war to end all wars," he said. "That didn't happen, but the date is one to remember and Armistice Day became Veterans Day."
Cook also introduced Higdon as the featured speaker.
"Our guest speaker is a Vietnam veteran,” Cook said “He served our nation well as an officer in Southeast Asia."
Higdon introduced himself.
"I am a Vietnam veteran,” Higdon said. “I served in the Army, in 1967 right after I got out of college. I didn't want to get drafted so I enlisted and went to Officer Candidate School at Fort Benning, Georgia."
Higdon said he did his basic training at Fort Dix prior to 26 weeks of OCS at Benning.
"Two hundred and fifty of us started OCS and 26 weeks later, 125 graduated,” he said. “One hundred twenty-three of 125 went to Vietnam and only one of us, Lt. Greg Kinzer, was killed. The rest of us did come home.
He spent a year in country, leaving Vietnam but not the Army on December 30, 1968. While there, Higdon worked in military intelligence, especially in the field of aerial intelligence.
"I never fired a gun when I was in Vietnam,” Higdon said. “I'm thankful for that. My job was to keep them safe. We had no weekends off, no vacation. It was a long, hard year."
Mail was a morale boost for the troops, including Higdon. He received letters from his wife, Gail, from other family members and friends as well as issues of the Neosho Daily News.
"I looked forward to that (mail) more than anything," he said.
He credited his wife for her support while he served.
"She was my strength and the reason I got through that year in Vietnam," he said.
Higdon returned home on December 27, 1968.
"I didn't need a parade,” Higdon said. “I didn't need a band or a cheering crowd. I was glad to get done and come home."
He listed some of his heroes, all local residents who served in various wars and conflicts. His list included former Newton County Sheriff Pete Collier, known as "Pearl Harbor Pete" and brothers Dan and Clifford Goodwin from Diamond, who both were both at Pearl Harbor during the Japanese attack. Clifford died that day and his body wasn't recovered or identified for many years. Last May, he was buried with full military honors in Diamond. Others included David Weems, who fought the Battle of the Bulge to Berlin during World War II, still alive at age 95, Elmer Gatheman, a World War II and Navy veteran who later served as a councilman, Connie Moffet, Granby, for his Vietnam era service, Commissioner Jim Jackson, Bill Doubek, a current Neosho City councilman, a Newton County Sheriff's Office Chaplain, and an ordained Lutheran Minister who served in the United States Air Force in Vietnam, and Tina Higdon, Higdon's daughter-in-law who served in both the Gulf War and Desert Storm.
"Thank you for asking me to be here today," Higdon said in closing. "I'm very proud to be a veteran."
He read from a poem written by William A. Predeau, 'Thank A Veteran' ending with the last lines of the poem,
"The bells will toll in their honor, as long as we never forget America is what it is today, Thank God and thank a vet."
Newton County Sheriff's Office Police Chaplains Mark Taylor and Bill Doubek provided the invocation and benediction for the event.
During the ceremony, all veterans present were asked to stand when their branch of service was named. Each gave their name, rank, and era in which they served. One of these was Ralph Frederick, Neosho, who served in the United States Marine Corps.
"It was a rich thing," Frederick said. "And a beautiful country to fight for."
Newton County employees who have served their country were also recognized.