Salute Rally Unveils New Memorial Dedications; Honors Final Heroes of Afghan War

Big Crowds Attend 36th Annual Recognition and Veteran Ceremonies

Rick Langenberg

Emotions ran high during the recent 36th annual Remembrance Ceremony and Pikes Peak Memorial Wall Dedication, as a wave of flag-waving and veteran salutes flooded the region.

And with picture-perfect weather, the gatherings attracted large crowds and were rounded out by the POW/MIA recognition ride between Woodland Park and Cripple Creek, and a slew of festivities.

The main message delivered by local residents, business operators and elected leaders was: Welcome Home, as your military service is appreciated and won’t be forgotten. Although our region often clashes over local politics, land use decisions and elections, for this weekend (Aug. 19- 20) most folks rallied behind military veterans and the forgotten heroes of some of the ghastliest conflicts. Teller County is veterans’ country, sporting more than 5,000 individuals who have served their country and been involved in a former or current war.

The Salute to American Veterans Rally, which ranks as the biggest festival in the area, unveiled new memorials, including special displays in Woodland Park’s Memorial Park, honoring the veterans of the Afghanistan war and especially the final 13 Americans who died during the chaotic evacuation in the fatal attack in Kabul on Aug. 26, 2021. Bells were tolled for every one of the soldiers killed during the final days of America’s longest war, with an ending that jolted the spirits of many long-time veterans.

The ceremonies also lauded a Korean attack pilot, and  the working war dogs, one of whom saved the president and his family; and welcomed Woodland park as an official Purple Heart community.

And throughout the festival, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Traveling Wall was displayed at the WP middle school football field, representing a miniature display of the actual wall in Washington D.C. Besides honoring those killed in the Vietnam War, the wall paid tribute to many recent conflicts, such as the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, and those who died on the hijacked flights that crashed into the Trade Center, Pentagon and a field in Pennsylvania.

The following day the ceremonies headed to Cripple Creek for the Pikes Peak Memorial Wall dedication, honoring military members in the Pikes Peak region who have died since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 in the conflicts overseas.  Luckily, no new names were added to the Wall this year.

Afghan War Memories Take Center Stage

During this year’s ceremony in Woodland’s Memorial Park, the devastating end to the conflict in Afghanistan took center stage, with Teller County Commissioner Dan Williams, a veteran military commander who served extensively in Afghanistan, making an emotional tribute to the veterans of this conflict. Williams expressed much angst over the way the conflict ended, noting the many accomplishments that occurred during Operation Enduring Freedom.  It was praised as a remarkable speech by a former veteran, who expressed outrage over the continual flurry of wars that dominate our world.

“The war ended abruptly two years ago, and to many of us who sacrificed there, it ended dishonorably and in a chaotic hyper political fashion. No explanation was presented, no accountability given, no victory parades occurred and no responsibility taken for the 13 young men and women killed in the final days of the war…leaving those of us who served there to try and make sense of it all by ourselves.”

Williams admitted that “the war really changed me,” and he still struggles to come to terms with the results of the conflict, often regarded in the last few years as “America’s forgotten war.” “So, on occasion, in the quiet of the dawn, I ask myself, ‘Did we leave it better than we found it? Were the years spent and the lives lost worth it?’”

Williams noted that the war’s financial toll hit the $2.3 trillion figure and resulted in the death of close to 10,000 American military personal and civilian contractors, not to mention the thousands of wounded soldiers and those suffering from much PTSD agony.

He hinted that politics became the main culprit that really ripped apart the original Operation Enduring Freedom mission that Williams expressed much pride in pursuing. He said thousands of soldiers were saved and much progress occurred in building schools and infrastructure for the Afghans. Despite the disastrous evacuation that drew comparisons to what happened in Vietnam, Williams said he is proud of “what we tried to do for the Afghan people. The ember of freedom is still in the hearts of many Afghans and only time will tell if they will be able to stand up against the Taliban as free people.”

In conclusion, the military colonel even made some stern anti-war comments in an emotional manner, “As long as mankind has existed on this planet, there have been conflicts and wars. We just can’t seem to appreciate and preserve peace. Whether fighting for religious, economic or political reasons our nations are moved towards war by well-intentioned political leaders, many of whom have never actually served in combat themselves…In the end, those of us asked to fight them are left with memories, broken bodies or minds, and with far more questions than answers… But I want to tell you today, your sacrifice mattered, and your nation and this community appreciates your service.”

To symbolize the support for the last soldiers who died in the Afghan conflict Williams led an official tolling of the bell in which each name was read for the servicemen who was killed in the attack on Kabul.  Their actions are credited for saving more than 100,000 people who were trying to evacuate.

Other Tributes

Besides the war in Afghanistan, the ceremony honored Major Ken Sanguinetti, a courageous attack pilot during the Korean War.

Also, a few retired working “war” dogs were put on display, one of whom is credited for saving the life of a U.S. president and his family during an abated attack on the White House. Also, Woodland Park Councilwoman Kellie Case, made a tribute to Woodland Park becoming an official Purple Heart community.

In closing, event organizer Jim Wear, president of ProPromotions, described the event as pivotal in displaying support for veterans and overcoming an anti-veteran stigma, which erupted in the 1980s, caused by flawed actions of political leaders who never served in the military.  He believes the festival has helped heal the wounds many veterans have experienced, and has become a welcoming time for them as they adjust to civilian life.

The Pikes Peak Memorial Wall Dedication, held on Aug. 20, also was quite emotional, with memories relived from the most devastating terrorist attack on American soil in decades.