Maj. Gen. Robert S. Ferrell, commander of Aberdeen Proving Ground, arrived unannounced at an animated gathering of soldiers and veterans at Perry Point Veterans Affairs Hospital in Cecil County.
He immediately mingled with the crowd. During what was his first visit to the hospital this week, he spoke quietly with veterans, thanking them for their service and telling them he was honored to be among them.
He often placed a firm hand on a fragile shoulder or knelt closer so he could be heard.
"I kept trying to see his rank when he was talking to me," said Jeffrey Jones, 59, an Army veteran who is being treated for glaucoma and expects to return to his Salisbury home next month. "Then I saw the two stars and knew he was a general. How nice of him to come here for us! It will make a lot of guys feel better."
For Ferrell, 53, the son of a veteran of the Korean and Vietnam wars and the father of an active-duty soldier, the task was a welcome one.
"Veterans are No. 1 on my priority list," he said. "Veterans Day is a place marker in our hearts for all the men and women both here and abroad. They have done a lot, and we need to make sure we give them honor and praise."
The get-together among the soldiers and the veterans, a joint operation between APG and the hospital in Perryville, launched a month of activities honoring veterans. The occasion was a chance for the soldiers to mix with men and women who have preceded them in service to the country.
The soldiers, many of whom have recent combat experience, conversed easily with the patients. They paired up and played board games, cards and billiards as they shared pizza and stories of their military experiences.
"Events like this get our veterans out and about," said Rich Maichle, volunteer services specialist at the hospital. "It gives them a chance to share their stories with all these soldiers here today, who will be veterans one day."
The party did wonders for the patients' morale, said Stephen Leighton, a Vietnam War veteran recovering from recent surgery.
"I am the biggest cheerleader for this hospital. It has saved my life many times," he said. "But knowing that people from the outside, especially soldiers, care means so much to all of us."
In a crowd of more than 100 patients, Spc. John Wilcox of Paso Robles, Calif., found himself in a challenging game of checkers with another Wilcox — a Navy veteran named Dan. They quickly determined they had blue eyes in common but were not related. They did discover they were evenly matched in checkers strategy. No winner was declared at day's end.
Ferrell passed out American flag lapel pins and instructed his troops to pin them on the veterans. For William Krauch, 81, Ferrell reserved an additional honor: a commander's coin, given as a thank-you to a soldier who lent his musical talents to the party.
Krauch belted out a lively rendition of "New York, New York" and had the crowd singing. Then the elderly veteran, who hails from Highlandtown, played "For Once in My Life" on the harmonica. He placed Ferrell's coin in a felt-lined case with his harmonica.
APG personnel will participate in several observances on the post, at Harford County schools and other locations throughout the month. Ferrell promised that he and his troops will return often to Perry Point.
Sgt. Maj. Kennis Dent reminded the crowd that Veterans Day — which is on Sunday — is not just a date in November but an homage that should endure throughout the year.
"It is about entire lives of sacrifice," Dent said.