Soldiers from World War I to the Persian Gulf gathered at Fort Meade yesterday to talk politics and history on the 75th anniversary of the "war to end all wars."
From the man who tried to join the Navy when he was 15 to another who is alive today because he was grounded for fighting with a fellow airman, the veterans gave brief and sometimes personal glimpses of America's military history to about 1,000 people gathered in the Murphy Field House.
The 90-minute ceremony helped relive the historic mission of Fort Meade, which opened as Camp Meade to train troops headed to Europe to fight in World War I. The post is now primarily administrative, though it did play host to nearly 3,000 soldiers on their way to the Middle East three years ago.
Col. Robert G. Morris III, Fort Meade's garrison commander and a veteran of Vietnam and the Persian Gulf, paid tribute to the World War I soldiers. Many who were stationed at the base then never made it home.
"We remember their names, we picture their faces," the colonel said.
About 30,000 of the 4.7 million World War I veterans are alive today. The Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that number decreases at the rate of 25 per day. Their average age is 95.
Matthew C. Brandt, 92, needed a little prodding from his helper to jar loose memories of trying to join the Navy in 1915, when he was just 15 years old. The Navy booted him out because, he said, "I hadn't learned to shave yet."
Mr. Brandt, who lives in the Charlotte Hall Veterans Home in southern Maryland, said he waited two years and joined the Army when he was a more mature 17.
"I grew up fast," he said of his training and combat missions in France. "They taught us well -- they taught us the fine art of killing."
Mr. Brandt told of fox holes -- "you have to keep your head down," he said -- and of a single rose he found growing on the same battlefield where many of his buddies died. He was wounded in action and was released from the hospital two days before the armistice was signed on Nov. 11, 1918.
"We were glad to see that day, believe me," Mr. Brandt said. "I came home and went back to school, where I belonged in the first place."
Fort Meade grew in prominence during World War II, when 3.5 million troops passed through the Odenton base.
Earl A. Snyder, 75, who lives in Laurel, told tales of flying low over Japanese cities during World War II and how the "flames from the burning cities were so strong that the B-29s bounced around in the air."
He is alive today because one day he got into a fight with a fellow officer. "As punishment, they grounded me," Mr. Snyder explained. "They put someone else in my place and on the next mission, the entire squadron was shot down and everyone killed.
"I didn't think much about it then because at that time we were losing crews constantly," Mr. Snyder said. "But now that I'm older, I think about how in the world I was allowed to live and all these people were no longer allowed."
Miguel Perez, an infantryman in the Vietnam War who works at Fort Meade, said he did not see the "ugliness" of the conflict that is so widely reported. He also said the war was not lost, at least not by soldiers.
"We did not lose this war," he stressed. "Every single major battle we fought we won. If you fight and win every round, how can you lose the fight -- unless the attending officials did not know what the fight was all about."
But with four wars and several other conflicts -- including Grenada, Panama and Kuwait -- fought since World War I, perhaps the best thought came from Mr. Brandt.
"I hope the war to end all wars has been fought," the veteran said. "It wasn't any fun. It never is."