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117 ARW celebrates America’s oldest National Veterans Day Parade at its birthplace

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Shelby Thurman
  • 117th Air Refueling Wing Public Affairs

Birmingham, Ala. -- Members of the 117th Air Refueling Wing joined various organizations such as The American Legion, National Guard Association of Alabama, Reserve Organizations of America, Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States, and other national foundations in honoring military veterans during the 76th National Veterans Day Awards dinner on Nov. 10, and by marching in the National Veterans Day Parade on Nov. 11, 2023, in Birmingham, Alabama. 

The awards dinner was hosted by the National Veterans Day Foundation, where they presented an award to the National Veteran of the Year. A perpetual National Veterans Award was created in Birmingham for America’s first official National Veterans Day observance on November 11, 1954, as authorized by Congress. 

Its purpose is to honor an outstanding veteran in the United States each year who has made the greatest contribution to further the patriotic interests of veterans and veteran organizations throughout the country; and the award is presented at the National Veterans Award Dinner in Birmingham. 

This year, the National Veteran of the Year award went to James Popwell, U.S. Marine Corps. veteran and founder of the Flags for Vets non-profit. The mission of Popwell’s organization is to install a flagpole for any veteran that requests one at their residence. They rely on donations to purchase and install the flagpoles across the country.

“I’m most proud to report that to date, we have honored more than 604 veterans with flagpoles and flags in 26 states, including 15 Medal of Honor recipients,” states Popwell on his organization’s website. “We will honor your service no matter what branch you served or where you served. From WW II veterans to Operation Iraqi Freedom or Operation Enduring Freedom. We want to say thanks and show you our gratitude.”

The events continued the next day with about 500 members of the 117 ARW marching in the National Veterans Day Parade in downtown Birmingham. 

“I am grateful to all of the members of the 117th Air Refueling Wing who came out to represent us at the National Veterans Awards Dinner and at the National Veterans Day Parade,” said 117 ARW commander Col. Mike Adams. “Men and women like them, who serve and sacrifice for this country, who defend our values and freedoms, are why we are proud to honor Veterans Day this year and every year.” 

The idea of a National Veterans Day was introduced by Birmingham native and World War II veteran Raymond Weeks, who thought to expand on Armistice Day to celebrate all veterans.

In 1947, Weeks led the first National Veterans Day Parade in Birmingham. The same year, Weeks led a delegation to Washington D.C. to urge the then-Army Chief of Staff General Dwight D. Eisenhower into creating the national holiday. President Eisenhower signed legislation in 1954 to establish November 11 as National Veterans Day in America.

Weeks has become known as the “Father of Veterans Day” and was later granted the President Citizens Medal by President Ronald Reagan in 1982. He also continued to lead the parade until his passing in 1985.