Many in White Hall say their annual Memorial Day event is a way to keep the light of fallen heroes lit. Monday was no exception, as the city began the 2018 program at 9:45 a.m. at the White Hall Museum.

The Pine Bluff Community Band played patriotic tunes, and motorcyclists created a parade of patriotism to honor those who made the ultimate sacrifice by giving their lives in combat.

Danny Dean said he participates in the motorcycle ride each year. He’s a United States Air Force veteran who was honorably discharged in December 1973. His service began in April 1970.

Danny Williams said he rides to celebrate and honor the fallen veterans. “I am a supporter of the fallen comrades,” he said.

White Hall Mayor Noel Foster opened the ceremony by describing the event as a way “to honor those that have been of service to our country, to remember the main focus for this day. People come from all over each year, and it is a really good service, you’ll see.”

There was a special reading of “No, Freedom Isn’t Free” by Boe Fontaine, who served in the Marines from 1959-1980 and retired as a gunnery sergeant.

Mary Lou Mauldin, past director of the White Hall Museum, said of the day: “We are so glad we are able to provide this program in remembrance of our veterans that didn’t get to come home. We appreciate all they come out to make this wonderful event.”

White Hall Alderman David Beck introduced the guest speaker, Retired Col. Robert Ator II, who now serves as director of military affairs for the Arkansas Economic Development Commission. Ator retired from the military less than a year ago after serving as commander of the 189th Airlift Wing of the Arkansas Air National Guard, the largest Air National Guard C-130 wing in the US.

Ator told the crowd that he grew up in England, Italy, Germany and in various US states as a military brat during the Cold War, but most of his childhood was spent in Europe.

“The moment I knew what my path was, it is as crystal clear today as it was when it actually happened,” he said.

Ator went on to share a story dating back to 1979 when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan.

“There was a Fourth of July celebration held every year at the Paxton house,” Ator said.

“The Paxton house is where the accords and treaties were signed for how they were going to split up Europe between ally nations after World War II after we’ve beaten the Nazis. The American government held on to the house that sat in the Soviet sector of Germany, but because the Soviets had invaded Afghanistan the generals that usually went were not allowed to go. My father, a measly colonel at the time, was invited to go.”

He said they rode the troop train into Berlin, “a normal 4-5 hour train ride turned into a two-day excursion because every two miles or so fully armed Russian troops would climb all over the train with dogs sniffing out to see if anyone was trying to sneak in or out. As a student in high school, I wasn’t lost at what I was seeing.”

When they finally entered West Berlin, he said they were put into a spy car and went through Checkpoint Charlie on the way to the Paxton house. There awaited a Fourth of July picnic and a barbecue with the Russians.

Ator went on to say that, as a child, he grew up thinking Russians were the “big bad people that wanted to kill them” (Americans).

Later that afternoon, they drove around East Germany and entered into villages, where they found huge mounds of rubble that were left from World War II. He said there he witnessed people “standing around in line waiting for food — the line stretched for many, many blocks, there was no smile amongst them and no talking whatsoever.”

“That night we came back to West Berlin, over by the Berlin Wall they had a firework display,” Ator added.

“They were playing patriotic music … I’ll never forget that as a freshman in high school, acidic to my soul there were tears streaming down my face. In that moment, I got a peek under the table of what was out there in the world and what my role had to be as apart of this. So I, too, stepped forward like many veteran attendees today.”

Ator is a graduate of the United States Air Force Academy, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in engineering. His post-graduate training includes Squadron Officers’ School, Air Command and Staff College and Air War College. He is an experienced C-130 Hercules instructor/ evaluator and functional check pilot with more than 5,000 flying hours and is the author of the syllabi currently used to train all C-130 aircrew in the US.

Before joining the Arkansas Air National Guard, he served 11 years active duty in the US Air Force and is a veteran of numerous combat operations including: Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm (Saudi Arabia), Provide Comfort (Somalia), Provide Promise (Haiti), Joint Forge (Bosnia), and Operation Noble Eagle (Homeland Security). He is a recipient of the prestigious McKay Trophy, Jabara Award, and the Legion of Merit, among many other commendations for exceptional performance during his military service. He and his family have lived in Little Rock since 1990.