Canton Repository

November 12, 2003

Dover veterans leader speaks at Arlington

Copley Washington correspondent

WASHINGTON — David Berger, owner of a heating and air-conditioning business, never dreamed he’d meet a president, or speak before thousands on Veterans Day.

But that’s what happened Tuesday, when the Dover, Ohio, veterans leader joined President Bush and Veterans Secretary Anthony J. Principi in the annual tribute to the nation’s retired military at Arlington National Cemetery.

Berger is the recently elected national commander of the Army and Navy Union, the nation’s oldest veterans organization. Because the union was the sponsor of this year’s commemoration, Berger had the rare opportunity to speak along with Bush and Principi.

Tuesday’s event marked the 50th anniversary of Veterans Day.

Heady as the experience was, it didn’t make Berger forget that he disagrees with Bush on Iraq, or stop him from asking for more federal money for veterans.

“I really wasn’t behind it (the war in Iraq) to start with,” said Berger, 61, who spent more than an hour with Bush at the event. “It seems we aren’t making any headway.”

During a reception after the ceremony, Berger pulled Principi aside to make a pitch for more federal funding for disabled veterans.

Principi “said that he’s working on more funding for them,” Berger reported. “I think he is trying to do the best he can.”

On Friday, Berger, who is no public speaker, was a “nervous wreck” as he contemplated his speech, he said.

Yet by the time he stood to speak at the white marble Memorial Amphitheater in Arlington Cemetery, with a crowd of 5,000 before him, he was relatively relaxed, he said.

“I come from a long line of veterans and from that, as well as my own personal experience, I have grown to realize that the battle these men and women fight does not always end with our victory as a nation,” he said under an overcast sky.

Berger, an Air Force veteran, shared the inspiration he drew from his uncle, a prisoner of war in Germany during World War II. During nine months in a prison camp, the uncle lost 80 pounds. Years later, when he was back home, the horrors of that war would cause him to awaken screaming in the night.

“His example of self-giving and determination defined and instilled American pride in my heart and mind, and he continues to stand tall in my eyes,” Berger said.

About 150 members of the Army and Navy Union from Ohio traveled to Washington to hear Berger.

In his tribute, Bush said veterans have “fought for the security of this nation, for the safety or our friends and for the peace of the world. They humbled tyrants and defended the innocent and liberated the oppressed,” he said.

The nation has more than 25 million living veterans, including 200 from World War I.

At the end of his speech, Bush turned to Iraq, pronouncing the loss of American lives “terrible.” He beseeched grieving families to know, in their hurt and loneliness, that their loved ones “served in a good and just cause.”

Berger found Bush to be congenial and down to earth, and at one point helped him with his topcoat as a chilly wind blew through the amphitheater.

Berger, a Democrat who voted against Bush, said there wasn’t time to share his doubts about U.S. policy in Iraq with the president.

Several other Army and Navy Union members from Ohio expressed continuing support for the U.S. presence in Iraq, while bemoaning the lack of international assistance.

“I think we did the right thing,” said Mel Schlabach of Canton, who served as national commander of the organization several years ago. “It’s a rough situation. We’re dealing with an unseen enemy.”