After taking a 20-foot jump from a helicopter when it was hit by enemy fire in Vietnam, Ralph Souther of Gainesville was flown to a hospital in Saigon.
The former Army staff sergeant served in the 9th and 25th Infantry Divisions during the war in 1966 and 1967.
Souther survived his injuries and was able to head home to meet his 6-month-old son for the first time.
“When I was drafted in ‘66, there were 33 of us from Hall County that got on a bus together. Out of the 33, one was killed. Now we’re losing some as time catches up with some of us. But we were lucky to go through what we went through then and make it back,” Souther said. “A few of them said they would come here tonight.”
Souther was among a number of veterans honored at East Hall High School Thursday night for the school’s second annual Veterans Day celebration. The program was called “The Sound of Freedom: A Tribute to Our Veterans.”
As the military members, veteran or active duty, entered the gymnasium, hundreds rose to their feet to applaud.
“This is real nice. It’s great to have the recognition,” Korean War veteran Bill Coker said.
Thursday’s free program included performances by the East Hall Concert Band and East Hall Wind Symphony, readings, choral presentations and a flag folding ceremony by the high school’s NJROTC. Song selections included “American Anthem,” sung by the concert choir, and “Within These Hallowed Halls,” which was narrated by chemistry teacher Johnny Smith. Smith read passages from the Constitution and quotes by Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy as the band played.
“This is wonderful. I believe we can’t do enough to commemorate veterans and I’m glad to be a part of it,” Smith said.
Somber moments, such as the playing of “Taps,” reflected on those who died for their country. The school also had “America’s White Table,” meant to honor the country’s missing service members. It is a small table set for one, and items of the table represent symbols. The salt, for one, represent the tears of their loved ones.
Les Thornton, organizer and a Navy ROTC instructor for East Hall, said he was happy with the turnout, and believes the event grew from last year. He said he hopes the ceremony will continue to be an annual affair.
“I think this lays the foundation to recognize the country and all the men and women who give so much in the U.S.,” he said.
Throughout the week, schools across Hall County paid tribute to local veterans and active-duty service members.
At Wauka Mountain Multiple Intelligences Academy, students brought in photos of family members who served or are serving in the armed forces for a collage in the school’s media center.
World War II veteran Mack Abbott and Vietnam veteran Dennis Smalley were guest speakers at Spout Springs Tuesday, and Johnson High School scheduled a number of speakers in the library Thursday, including a veteran of Vietnam and Desert Storm, Toby Lindeman.
Also during the week, students at World Language Academy held a walk-a-thon, in which all proceeds were sent to the Wounded Warrior Project.
Hall Schools Superintendent Will Schofield began the initiative several years ago to encourage all schools across the county to host an event or activity to honor veterans.
Schofield said he believes the learning opportunity for students, as well as the chance to honor those who served, was too great to miss.