Tribute paid to local veterans, Unknown soldiers

Mel Russell, Yolo County Library archivist and project coordinator, gives a presentation on Yolo County in WWI at a luncheon to honor local veterans and unknown soldiers. (Aaron Geerts/Winters Express)

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At the eleventh hour on the eleventh day of the eleventh month, the war to end all wars finally came to an end. Many were fated to return home, many to die and many have fates that are still unknown. It’s because of this collective mystery that the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier was created, why the Lest We Forget and WWI Project exist and why we pay homage to veterans of every war every Nov 11.

To date, there are over 81,000 American service members missing in action and as many families left not knowing what happened to their loved ones. On March 11, 1921, an unidentified American serviceman was returned from France and buried with the Medal of Honor and other countries’ highest honors at the Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.

This WWI ‘Unknown’ has been accompanied by ‘Unknowns’ from other wars over the years, and their tombs represent a place for families of those missing in action to mourn, and for Americans to pay their respects. The ‘Lest We Forget’ Yolo County and WWI Project were born from a similar yearning to honor US veterans and their families.

“It started in 2014 and we document the experience of Yolo County in WWI and what happened on the home front,” said Yolo County Library archivist and project coordinator Mel Russell. “We talk about all aspects of the home front, what women did, fundraising and everything done by draftees and volunteers. Almost 1,000 boys from the county went into the armed service during the war and we followed them and document each of them.”

Russell will travel to every library branch in Yolo County and talk about the farmers, school children, who got drafted, who died, who came back along with a breakdown of the localized history.

On Wednesday, Nov 10, the Historical Society of Winters and the Rotary Club of Winters sponsored a Veteran’s Day lunch at the Winters Opera House, where Russell gave a presentation on WWI and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

“It was the first time American boys were buried in Europe and their families didn’t have a place to mourn their sons,” Russell explained. “The tomb of the unknown soldier is a place we can set aside our differences and honor those who served and sacrificed. Those boys gave up their futures for us and it’s important for us to recognize that.”

Also in attendance of the Veteran’s Day lunch was former member of the 3rd US infantry Regiment, Sgt. Lee Coleman. He also gave a presentation on his time in the ranks of “The Old Guard.”

“It was 1968, only a couple years after the president was murdered in broad daylight, MLK was killed, Robert Kennedy was killed, hardhats for Nixon were around, Black Panthers were formed and it was a lot of political and social malaise,” Colman said. “To be 22 years old and drafted, put into a ceremonial uniform and told how perfect you are will comfort that widow. It changed me forever.”

Although Colman was selected to be a part of the 3rd Regiment, endured the rigorous training and served as an honor guard at the Arlington National Cemetery, it wasn’t enough to join the ranks of the prestigious Sentinels – the guards of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. He put in four months of extra work, then one day was told as kindly as possible by a superior officer, “You’ll never make it.” A setback to ambition to be sure, Coleman didn’t allow it to mire his service to his country.

Honoring the country’s veterans, however, doesn’t need to be done one day a year. It’s incumbent to all who live in this nation to remember and honor not only those who’ve served, but their families as well. For the freedom we live with – and is often taken for granted – was paid for in full by their sacrifices.

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