OCEAN CITY — Despite the dangers, the difficult tasks in a strange country, Rickey R. Arce loved his job, he told those gathered Monday morning in the Ocean City Tabernacle for the annual observance of Veterans Day.
Arce, a Philadelphia native, served as a Marine Corps lance corporal in Afghanistan, his squadron’s gunner on a belt-fed M249 machine gun in Helmand Province.
“And I loved it. I loved my job. I loved the Marines to the right and to the left of me,” he said. “I was right at home.”
For years, Ocean City marked Veterans Day at Veterans Memorial Park across Wesley Avenue from the Tabernacle. Despite mild temperatures and sunny skies this year, the event was held indoors. Veterans, family members and supporters attended the observance, which included prayers, songs and ceremony.
A video showed members of VFW Post 6650 and American Legion Post 524 laying a wreath at the war memorial earlier in the day. The Ocean City High School Choir sang, the high school band performed and Primary School students Tyler Swartz, Daisy Avila, Brittany Fraga and Samuel Patrinik read poems thanking veterans. High school students interpreted the presentation in American Sign Language.
Officials and members of local organizations also spoke about the sacrifices made by veterans and the obligation to remember them.
“These brave men and women risked their lived to protect us,” said Mayor Jay Gillian.
Gillian also honored Bill Hughes, a congressman and ambassador to Panama who died recently, saying Ocean City had lost one if its greatest citizens.
As the keynote speaker at the observance, Arce described horrific attacks and ambushes in which close friends were killed.
“This bracelet that I’m wearing, it helps me remember these guys, a few close friends who passed away,” Arce said, looking at the names engraved in a wide bracelet. There were many more, he said, but these were four Marines he felt close to.
He described the fighting in the city of Marjah in the south of the country, reportedly one of the major areas for growing poppy flowers, the source of opium, heroin and much of the funding for the Taliban.
It was the site of intense fighting in what has become the longest war in American history.
Arce spoke of training Afghan soldiers, who then accompanied American and coalition troops in operation. He said they did not have close to enough interpreters.
“It was a mess, to say the least,” he said. “I’m just naming some of the things we had to overcome on the spot, just to give you an idea of what we were getting into.”
He said there is a lot that could be told of the fight for the city and that he remains proud of what he did there.
In the room, veterans of World War II, Korea and Vietnam listened to his description of combat and of the difficulty in coming back to the life he set aside. He spoke frankly of his struggles to readjust, including difficulty with alcohol, an issue for many veterans.
“You get back, man, and you have a lot of things on your mind,” he said. That includes thinking about things you’ve accomplished. “Now, you’re moving forward in the civilian world and you have a whole different list.”
Arce said he no longer drinks and is working closely with his therapist, saying the process alleviates his stress.
“And realize that I’m here, and not over there anymore,” Arce said.
Members of the Marine Corps League 676 Dramis Detachment carried the American flag to the front of the room for the “Star Spangled Banner” and Pledge of Allegiance, after which veterans carried the banner of each branch of the armed services to the front, while the song of each branch played. Those who served in each branch were asked to stand at that point.
Those standing included Doris Barnes, 98, who served in the Marines. Ocean City special events coordinator Michael Hartman described her as a rock star. When he pointed her out, she received an ovation.