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Sunday July 5th, 2015 12:24AM

State officials join students in saluting veterans

By Rob Moore Reporter
DEMOREST - At a middle school named for a Medal of Honor recipient, Gov. Nathan Deal and Georgia Adjutant Gen. Jim Butterworth joined the student body in honoring veterans Monday morning.

Hilliard A. Wilbanks Middle School was host to a Veterans Day program that featured the two, along with presentations by the school's chorus, band, and student body.

Near the end of the ceremony was a salute to World War II veterans, a half-dozen of whom were present for the ceremony.

"Veterans Day is always a special day to recognize and remember those who have served and even those who continue to serve in uniform today, and we have them around the world and some are being injured and dying as a result of being in military service," Deal said following the ceremony. "Today was special because of being at the Hilliard Wilbanks Middle School to celebrate their namesake, who was a Medal of Honor winner. That is a very unique distinction, and to see the veterans who came out today - quite a few, and many of them are getting very elderly, so it's always nice to have the opportunity to tell them thank you."

Butterworth shared what the observance means to him.

"We talk a lot about sacrifice, and just about everybody in this room today that are veterans would do exactly what they did all over again," Butterworth said. "They've seen some pretty difficult things, and gone into harm's way - but they'd do it all again and that's the thing that's absolutely magnificent. It goes back almost 250 years with the experiment called the United States of America."

During the ceremony, Wilbanks' sister, Patricia Wilbanks DeWitt of the Wilbanks Foundation, told the story of her brother's heroism.

Wilbanks, a forward air controller near Dalat, Republic of Vietnam, died while using his unarmed, single-engine plane to interrupt the enemy advance and allow advancing Rangers to withdraw to safety.

"Today is very, very special to the Wilbanks family," DeWitt said of the observance. "We are just so proud of this school, so proud of Marybeth Thomas the principal and Rodney Long the assistant principal and the faculty. They have just been absolutely outstanding to honor and perpetuate my brother's memory."

DeWitt said it is the third year members of the family have been at the school for Veterans Day.

"It just blows my socks off every single time," DeWitt said. "We're just very, very appreciative of the honor to all veterans, because it's not just about one man - it's about them all, and we just appreciate it."

Veteran John Buford Ward of Habersham County, who served in Europe under Gen. Patton, attended Monday's ceremony and shared a little about his service.

"We went into service the day the Battle of the Bulge started," Ward said. "We fought the Battle of the Bulge with them and the Rhine River crossing, and Central Europe down into Czechoslavakia," Ward said.

Monday's observance was the first Ward has attended.

"I'm impressed with this here today," Ward said. "I've never been to one."
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