Active military members, veterans and their family members were honored Tuesday evening during the 2017 Salute to Our Veterans at the Havelock Tourist and Event Center.
Sponsored by the Havelock Chamber of Commerce, the annual event brings together representatives from local businesses and community leaders for a chance to recognize the area's extended military family and their service to the nation.
Guest speaker Larry Hall, secretary for the N.C. Department of Military and Veterans Affairs, addressed the audience about the importance of supporting military families. Hall spent 16 years in the Marine Corps and Marine Corps Reserves and served in support of operations in the Middle East in Lebanon and Iran. Prior to taking on his current role, Hall represented Durham County, North Carolina’s 29th District in the House of Representatives.
“I want to make sure I thank the families," Hall said. "We could not do it without the sacrifices you make for us. There is no way for us to give enough in terms of accolades and support to what families give for their loved ones who serve in the military. We know going forward it’s going to require us to both take care of our fellow comrades, take care of their families while they’re gone, and live up to our end of the contract.”
Hall stressed the continued importance of the military in his own life.
"It's important for us to remember this is all about family, and the biggest family I have is still the United States Marine Corps. ... Let there be no doubt, we love everyone who is in the military, but we love the Marine Corps as a service apart," he said.
Hall also spoke about some of the challenges the military faces in the 21st century, such as environmental and energy issues.
"How do we make sure our military bases can continue to grow and support the national mission but at the same time have a great quality of life for our communities, and ensure our environment's there for our future leaders, our children and our succeeding generations?" he said.
Hall said maintaining the country's electrical power grid was one of the military's top priorities.
"I was talking to the commander of Fort Bragg and he said 'Our electric bill is $51 million a year.' That's a serious cost, so we have to value the use of that power and find ways to do it efficiently and effectively," he said. "We plan to have more military units stationed in North Carolina, and that's going to require us to be more creative."
North Carolina is a "hidden jewel among states" said Hall, boasting the fourth largest military population in the nation. Hall said about $66 billion comes to the state annually through its defense installations, including about $2 billion from Cherry Point, while 600,000 individuals work in defense related jobs across the state. Part of his job, Hall commented, is to make sure those workers and their loved ones are taken care of.
"We have over a million veterans in this state. ... We are a part of the community, we are not apart from the community," he said. "Veterans are our family in North Carolina and we expect to take care of our end of that contract. Our department's job is to make sure whatever benefits, whatever assistance, whatever need you family faces, that we provide that service and support. We challenge you to put us to work."
Hall said too many veterans fail to take advantage of the benefits they're entitled to.
"If you served, your family served. If you served, your community served. And if that happened, it is an additional duty for you to use every single benefit that you've earned," he said.
North Carolina's veteran population is expected to grow in the coming years, Hall told the audience, saying in February alone that 2,200 veterans were discharged in the state, adding to the 780,000 who already live here.
Hall said it was important to honor those veterans and their service by addressing their needs.
"My department is doing what we can for the military communities, and yours is one of the most important," he said in closing.
Earlier in the evening, Tom Braaten, a retired Marine major general who acted as master of ceremonies, kicked off the celebration. The former commanding general of Cherry Point recognized all active-duty military, veterans, and families of military personnel.
Havelock Mayor Will Lewis also thanked the military members in attendance.
"I'm proud to be here every year to say thank you to all that have served in uniform and continue to serve in uniform," said Lewis.
The evening also included the presentation of colors by a Marine color guard, and performances by the 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing Brass Band.
The finale of the evening was the annual cake ceremony, which featured cakes decorated with the insignia of each branch of the military. The honor of cutting the Marine Corps cake was reserved for both the oldest and the youngest service members in attendance.
Lida Barnes, a Navy veteran who served in World War II, represented the military veterans, while nine Marines who each enlisted in September 2016, stood in for the upcoming generation of military personnel. The young Marines were: Timothy Hawkins, James McGirt, Christopher Lewis, Oscar Gunbay, Joshua Mitchell, Andres Corilla, Triston Kindopp, James Huynh, and Lowellyne Cadie.
"Our young folk can learn a lot from listening to and talking with those who served before them," said Braaten. "Our oldest veterans did very well. And they always seemed to look on the bright side of life, and that's a lesson for everybody in this room."