An emotional salute: Mahomet Christian's Living Flag performances honor local veterans

Ron Ross, a Navy veteran, waved an American flag during a salute to the armed forces atop Mahomet Christian Church's four-tiered U.S. flag lined with 29 singers during last Friday's 14th annual Living Flag performance.

The song honors all five military branches, asking veterans who served to stand for their respective branch as the choir sings each theme.

"I enjoy being able to see their faces," Ross said.

The magnitude of meaning as each veteran stood isn't something that's easily lost on Ross.

"I sometimes have to look away because otherwise I'd tear up," he added.

The patriotic song is also one that motivated Carol Chaney to join the choir after coming and watching the performance for two years.

"Quite honestly, when I came to it the last two years and they put out the invitation, I thought, 'I'm not going to do that,' but this year I wanted to," she said. "It's an honor."

Perhaps the extra push to join the choir was seeing just how much the tribute meant to veteran audience members.

"I saw a man two years ago that was in the military who was an older man who couldn't stand up straight, but I saw him stand up so straight and so tall and salute the flag," Chaney said. "It was just ... really great."

"It is something that is such an honor to have," she added. "I was really impressed the first time I came. I can't even think of the right words, but it really is. It just honors our vets."

The veteran audience involvement was also a key motivator for Linda Maltby, who has assisted with the performances for the last 10 years.

"I hunt everyone down and make the endless phone calls and all of the emails," she said.

She does so out of sheer respect for those who served.

"We're trying to give honor to whom honor is due," Maltby said. "I think a lot of veterans appreciate someone speaking personally to them."

Perhaps her fondest memory was watching the commitment a veteran audience member had to standing during his branch of the military's theme.

"One year, I was up on the flag and I saw an older gentleman and he struggled and struggled and struggled to stand up, and he finally got upright by the time the song was over, but he did not give up and I thought, 'That is the determination of our veterans right there,'" Maltby said. "He did not give up and that struck me so. He could've sat there and nobody would have known the difference, but he was determined to stand up."

The annual patriotic tribute means a great deal to Barby Johnson, wife of Mahomet Christian Church's Pastor David Johnson, as she is the daughter of a World War II veteran and the mother of a Marine who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"For me, the men who serve in the military have given us such an amazing freedom, and I've seen the sacrifices that are made and some much greater than my dad (who lost his leg in the war), and I want to give back," Barby Johnson said. "I am so grateful."

She too can hardly glance into the audience during the armed forces salute.

"It makes you cry," she said. "I have to not look when they start standing up. If I watch, I can't sing after that. The tears start and I'm thinking, 'OK, I can get through this.'"

"I'm the same way," Arlayne Cooper added. "And when they sing the branch my dad was in ... I can't (look)."

When Cooper's husband attended the performance for the very first time, she said it was the first time he felt appreciated for what he endured.

The sacredness of the performance is what keeps many area community members returning, especially Brent Roberson of Mahomet who has attended "almost all of them."

"It's just the faith-based, patriotic honoring of our military personnel," he said. "I always appreciate the military who come by to hear the presentation."

But the performance wasn't all singing. The University of Illinois' Air Force Detachment 190 ROTC Drill Team also wowed the crowd, and Small Wonders Preschool's singers were sure to put a smile on any audience member's face as they danced along to "You're a Grand Old Flag" and performed motions to "I'm in the Lord's Army."

Mahomet-area community members also came to support the veterans by singing the national anthem at various performances Friday through Sunday. National anthem singers included retired Mahomet-Seymour High School choir director Jill Rinkel, M-S High School's quartet, Mahomet Christian Church's Ladies Trio and Justin Smith.

"We were certainly pleased with the response from the community," Pastor David Johnson said.

Attendance totaled 925 across all four performances as guests poured in from all over East Central Illinois.

"We had folks as far away as Mattoon and Charleston and lots of the communities that surround us," Johnson said.

Each year, Johnson is overwhelmed by the number of first-time attendees.

"Almost all of the folks say they'll be back again next year," he said.

Johnson delights in the fact that the service often reaches someone new each year.

"One thing that stands out to me was a Vietnam veteran," Johnson said. "He said he came at the invitation of a friend, and you could tell in his voice he came reluctantly. He really appreciated it and thought it was a genuine thank-you — that was something he had not gotten. We told him that's why we do what we do and that it meant the world to us."

Veterans in attendance ranged in service from World War II to serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. Pastor Johnson invited all to join the stage at the end of each performance to take a picture as a memento. He hopes the experience is one that they can carry with them as Veterans Day comes and goes.

"I think it does a lot for them," he said. "This is the one thing I hear over and over: They sense the genuineness of what we're doing. It comes through simple things like this. This is truly us giving genuine thanks to someone who really deserves it."

Categories (2):News, Religion

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