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Message that freedom is not free focus at Cumming Veterans Day ceremony
1WEB essay winner
Rachel Pries reads her scholarship-winning essay, “Why Freedom Isn’t Free." - photo by Jim Dean

CUMMING -- The red and white stripes of more than 200 American flags swayed in the wind, their navy corners, dotted with stars, flying high at the city of Cumming’s annual Veterans Day ceremony Friday morning.

The Vietnam Veterans of America (VVA) Chapter 1030 hosted the Saluting America’s Veterans event, which was held at the Veterans War Memorial in downtown Cumming.

The ceremony honored both veterans and servicemen and women who have fought and served to keep the United States free.

Attendees were reminded, though, that freedom is not free; rather, that it comes at a price.

“Many who served during the [Vietnam] era did not volunteer but were called into action through the draft,” Mayor H. Ford Gravitt said. “Whether they volunteered or were drafted, all the young men and women who served during this war did so with dignity, honor and pride, and we’re all humbled to be able to recognize your service and sacrifice here today.”

VVA 1030 scholarship recipient Rachel Priest, who is a freshman at the University of North Georgia and a Lambert High School alumna, read an essay at the morning’s event, which detailed why she feels freedom is not free.

“Freedom is a privilege; it is a prize, a sought-after commodity,” she said. “Due to the sacrifices made by soldiers and politicians, women and children in years past and present, I am able to enjoy a life full of freedom and safety.

“The sacrifices made, the cry for justice, families for fellow soldiers and lives for liberty must not be devalued by our ignorance, but be remembered and honored through our dedication to our nation and respect to those who have valiantly served. As long as we understand that freedom is not free, the better we will be able to protect and preserve it, like those who came before us.”

Keynote speaker, retired Navy Rear Adm. Tilghman Payne, echoed Priest’s sentiments in his address and emphasized that fewer and fewer Americans are serving in the country’s military.

“The support and appreciation of the American public is fantastic, but if you haven’t sat in the cockpit of a jet aircraft on the rolling deck of an aircraft carrier, waiting to be shot out, catapulted into a stormy night, it’s hard to imagine what it’s like,” he said.

According to the U.S. Department of Defense’s Defense Manpower Data Center, as of Sept. 30, 2016, the armed forces had just more than 1.3 million active duty servicemen and women – about 0.4 percent of the U.S. population.

Of that 1.3 million, nearly 70,000 are from Georgia.

However, in 1975, the year the Vietnam War ended and two years after Congress abolished the draft, the armed forces had more than 2.1 million active duty members – nearly 1 percent of the U.S. population at that time.

And even a decade ago, 1.6 million active duty servicemen were enlisted – a little more than 0.5 percent of 2006’s population.

Payne said those who are enlisted disproportionately come from the same areas of the country: rural America, with 40 percent coming from just six states.

“This develops what I would term a closed-loop system,” Payne said. “Those who are familiar with military experience join the military and serve, and those who have not [had experience] do not, and so the gap continues to widen.”

He urged attendees to help close this gap, especially in light of Veterans Day.

The ceremony honored 52 Forsyth County Vietnam veterans and recognized Cumming as a Purple Heart city.

“In a world tormented by tension and the possibilities of conflict, we meet in a quiet commemoration of an historic day of peace,” said Marty Farrell, the event’s master of ceremonies, invoking President John F. Kennedy’s 1961 Veterans Day address. “In an age that threatens the survival of freedom, we join together to honor those who made our freedom possible.”