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Holidays in D.C. a time for heroes

POSTED: May 31, 2008 5:00 a.m.

WASHINGTON — There is something about visiting the president’s house that leaves one in awe. I had a chance to go to the White House on the regular tour for the purpose of seeing the Christmas decorations.

I didn’t see the president, except in some photos on the wall, but I wore a tie anyway.

This year, the decor is in honor of the 394 National Parks and historic sites. The official White House tree has specially crafted ornaments representing each of the parks and sites. It’s a big tree.

It’s not your typical Christmas tree. The colors are more muted greens and beige and it has amber lights. No Christmas red and green this year. The ornaments are mostly regular balls that have been adorned with images of the various sites in the National Parks system.

I love looking at the various portraits that grace the walls of the White House. In the Vermeil room, which is on the lower level, are portraits of first ladies Jacqueline Kennedy, Lady Bird Johnson and Patricia Nixon. I saw Carter, Nixon, Ford and Reagan. In the East Room, there is the famous portrait of George Washington that was hauled away by Dolley Madison before the White House was burned in 1814.

I stood in the State Dining Room, where many state dinners have been held. I thought about one in particular in the Carter era that included two couples from Gainesville, Don and Lucille Carter and James and Frances Mathis, on the guest list.

But my favorite moment of the trip didn’t happen at the White House. It happened on my visit to the World War II Memorial. It made me think of my dad, who was in the Army. I also thought of others, such as Ennis Roberts, who was killed on a Coast Guard vessel about a month after the war began. He was the first man killed from Hall County. I wrote about Ennis and his twin brother, Aubrey, who was there when they raised the U.S. flag over Iwo Jima.

The memorial is a beautiful tribute, with one side dedicated to the Pacific operations and the other devoted to the Atlantic. It bears the names of important battles of the war with stirring quotations from military leaders.

I thought about so many men who have influenced my life who served in World War II. It occurred to me that if it weren’t for their dedication and valor, I might have been visiting the headquarters of the U.S. fuhrer.

Later, I went to the new Air Force Memorial. It has three modern steel spires that reach far into the sky. Among the names on its walls are the recipients of the Air Force Medal of Honor. The list includes two Georgians, Capt. Hilliard Wilbanks of Cornelia and Lt. Col. Joe Jackson of Newnan.

Wilbanks flew over Vietnam in a Cessna 0-1 Bird Dog, a spotter plane not much different from the civilian version.

On Feb. 24, 1967, he spotted a hidden enemy unit just in time to warn the approaching South Vietnamese Rangers.

He responded to the enemy fire shooting out the window with an M-16 automatic rifle. His plane crashed and he died before reaching a friendly base, but he had given the Rangers time to withdraw to safety.

I went to Washington with Christmas on my mind, but came home with thoughts of heroes.

Harris Blackwood is community editor of The Times. His columns appear Wednesdays in the print edition only and Sundays.



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