A group of people clutched small American flags and stood, with hands over their hearts or raised to their foreheads in a salute, as a local choir director sang the national anthem at the start of the Veterans Day ceremony in Atascadero.
As the last note faded into the air, speakers took to the podium at the Faces of Freedom Veterans Memorial in Atascadero Lake Park to honor the sacrifices and courage of veterans over the past century.
A few also noted the challenges facing younger veterans just returning home, such as finding jobs.
“If you have a business, help them,” said Dana Cummings, San Luis Obispo County veteran’s officer and founder of AmpSurf, which teaches disabled people to surf. “Share something you love with them. Thank a veteran.”
Those gathered in Atascadero joined residents from throughout San Luis Obispo County in paying tribute to veterans. Ceremonies were also held Friday in Cambria and Pismo Beach.
“We are in the presence of heroes,” retired Navy Chaplain Bill Houston said. “Heroes from the past, heroes of the present. May they ever know that we will not forget.”
During the ceremony, the Atascadero Community Band played tribute to the different branches of the military, with veterans standing for recognition when they heard their familiar tune.
Members of the Ladies of the Gold Coast Quilt Guild presented 19 quilts to service members who had served in every conflict from World War II to Iraq and Afghanistan.
“These handmade quilts are given to service members whose wounds may or may not be visible” to heal and comfort, guild President Mary Ann Carnegie said.
World War II veteran Al Lerno was honored with the Atascadero Memorial Foundation’s 2011 Distinguished Veteran of the Year Award.
The 88-year-old Santa Margarita resident — part of the Battle of the Bulge, the deadliest battle for American forces in that war — was captured and survived three months as a prisoner of war.
“You never forget something like that,” Lerno said after the ceremony. When asked about his award, he replied, “It’s really something.”
Lerno’s name is one of five that will be added to the memorial hero wall, which honors veterans countywide who have died or were prisoners of war. The others are George Dempsey of Atascadero, and Alvin Stallcup, Thomas Twyford and Jose Birco, all of Grover Beach.
“What causes men to stand up, knowing they’re facing almost certain death?” asked guest speaker Al Fonzi, a retired Army lieutenant colonel and career intelligence officer. “They don’t ask for a lot. They just want us to remember what they did.”
Reach Cynthia Lambert at 781-7929. Stay updated by following @SouthCountyBeat on Twitter.