The VFW Post 4464 Honor Guard, led by Commander Bill Mangus, marches into the ceremony.

VFW Post 4464 Commander Bill Mangus set the tone for the 5th Annual Gallipolis Walmart Veterans Appreciation Ceremony held Saturday with the reading of a poem.

“It is the veteran, not the preacher, who has given us freedom of religion. It is the veteran, not the reporter, who has given us freedom of the press. It is the veteran, not the campus organizer, who has given us freedom to assemble. It is the veteran, not the politician, who has given us the right to vote. It is the veteran who salutes the flag, who serves the flag, whose coffin is draped by the flag.”

4-year-old Emma Blazer passes out programs to attendees.

Guest Speaker Municipal Judge Eric Mulford followed suit, using personal experiences to frame his speech about the importance of giving back to those who served their country. Honoring his two grandfathers, who both served, Mulford focused on the death of his grandfather John Mulford and the impact the veteran support organizations had on him as a child.

“When he passed, I was only 10 years old and I suddenly learned a great deal about how this community and how my family felt about its veterans and how we felt about the organizations that served them,” said Mulford. “Without anyone directly saying anything to me or to any of the other grandkids about it, I learned first-hand the absolute and unconditional respect and reverence that my family and the community had for those who served.”

Judge Mulford spoke about the three-volley salute at the graveside, the folding of the American flag that covered his grandfather’s casket and the presentation of that flag to his grandmother and the effect it had on him.

“And it probably didn’t occur to me then, but I realize now that many of the men who conducted that ceremony had likely never even met him,” said Judge Mulford.

From those personal experiences, Judge Mulford turned the speech to what the community, in particular, the court systems can do to support veterans. He cited a Rand Corporation study stating hundreds of thousands of veterans return home from serving with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and traumatic brain injuries and went on to discuss how, according to the Ohio Judicial Conference, many veterans exhibit symptoms that include sleeplessness and violent outbursts, sometimes relying on combat skills not appropriate and sometimes illegal, in the civilian world.

Gallipolis Municipal Court Judge Eric Mulford addresses the crowd.

“Some of those veterans will self-medicate with illicit drugs and alcohol, often leading to contact with the criminal justice system,” said Judge Mulford. “Now, here in Gallia County, I don’t mean to say we are dealing with that on a daily basis or that makes up the majority of the persons who come in contact with the court system, but even if it’s one, I think we should find a way to help them, rather than pushing them through that criminal justice system.”

According to Mulford, it is conservatively estimated that veterans make up 12% of the population of jails and prisons nationwide. Mulford went on to discuss a comparison from the Ohio Judicial Conference, written by a Mansfield Ohio Municipal Court Judge titled  “A Tale of Two Soldiers”, that studied the cases of two veterans who came in contact with the court system. One of the veterans received no assistance from the court system and was sentenced to prison. The other received assistance through the court system and was placed in a treatment program. He credited his contact with the court system with saving his life because he had been contemplating suicide.

“Think back to those words that we used a few moments ago to describe most veterans. And I think the words that I used were dedication, determination, honor, sacrifice, and courage. So, how many of those five words do we typically think of, when we think about someone who is convicted of a crime or who is sitting in jail somewhere?” asked Judge Mulford.  “I would submit to you that we don’t typically associate any of those attributes with those persons. So, I respectfully suggest to you that it is very likely that many of these veterans who face legal consequences for what society deems criminal behavior are not what we consider criminals at all. Rather, as Mr. Mangus said, once a soldier, always a soldier. Many may have, what I call a warrior’s mentality, who do not address any treatment needs for physical health, let alone any psychological healthcare. And I suggest to you, as a representative of your local court system, that we who administer the courts have a responsibility to remember that veterans derive from what I’ll call a unique culture and have unique experiences. That veterans, in other words, are a unique population, with unique needs and that therefore, those of us who are in judicial positions, have an obligation to serve that population with unique programming.”

Judge Mulford said approximately 7,000 cases are handled in the Gallipolis Municipal Court and while he did not suggest the majority involve veterans, he said, “I don’t care if one of them out of 7,000 involves a veteran, it’s still important.”

In Ohio, according to Judge Mulford, specialized dockets exist that are dedicated to giving specific classes of people or offenses access to resources and tools to manage medical or psychological needs. Of the 210 specialized dockets in Ohio today, Judge Mulford said only 21 in the State of Ohio are geared toward helping veterans. Out of those 21, only one exists in Southern Ohio in the Athens County Common Pleas Court.

“Now despite the fact that many veterans who come into court are charged with lower level or misdemeanor offenses, there are zero specialized dockets anywhere south of Columbus geared towards veterans in municipal court. The very court that handles misdemeanor offenses,” said Judge Mulford.  “And that doesn’t make sense to me. So, for those reasons, I propose to establish, and I’ve proposed this before, to establish a veteran’s treatment docket here in the Gallipolis Municipal Court. And the function of that specialized docket will be to facilitate access to various programs, as needed, to foster interaction between veterans who find themselves in court with other mentor veterans who can assist them. The goal of that specialized docket will be to ensure that our veterans who come into court, leave the court system having received the services that they need and that they deserve. In other words, that they leave the court system having been supported and protected by the court, the same way that they have supported and protected us for so many years.”

Judge Mulford reiterated that if it’s just one veteran assisted through the program, it is worth it.

“If we follow through on that commitment, that will be one tangible way that we can say thank you and we can demonstrate our respect for their service. My thought is, what better way to say thank you for your service, than to lend a small helping hand, even if it’s just one person, when they’re in need, knowing that they’ve already given so much of themselves for us and to us.”

According to Store Manager Rick Gainey, Walmart associates initiated the ceremony five years ago to show support for veterans in the area.

“We have a very good working relationship with our veterans in the area,” said Gainey. “And we try to show our respect and our appreciation for them.”

BJ Leach performs God Bless the USA during the ceremony.

During the ceremony, the Gallia Academy High School Madrigals performed the National Anthem and America the Beautiful and BJ Leach performed God Bless the USA. A letter from U.S. Senator Joe Manchin, from West Virginia, was read and the traditional three-volley salute, with the playing of taps, was held in the parking lot to close the program.

The VFW Post 4464 Honor Guard.

The Annual Gallipolis Veterans Day Parade and Ceremony are scheduled for Saturday, November 11, with the parade starting at 10:30 a.m., followed by the ceremony at 11 a.m. To participate in the parade, contact the Gallia Veterans Service Commission at (740) 446-2005 by November 9, 2017.