In a rare public tribute, the "super soldiers" who work in secrecy as members of the military's special operations units were honored Tuesday for their work as vanguards in the most dangerous areas of the world.
"A Salute to Special Operations" was part of the annual Veterans Day ceremony at Forest Lawn Memorial-Park's Court of Liberty in the Hollywood Hills.
"Today, every American stands on the shoulders of every veteran, and every American owes a debt of gratitude," Gov. Gray Davis told the crowd of about 1,000 at the ceremony recognizing soldiers, sailors and Marines who served in war.
But the ceremony paid special tribute to the Green Berets, Rangers, Navy SEALs and other special operations personnel who go into their line of work knowing that public accolades are largely unwanted and possibly counterproductive, retired Command Sgt. Maj. Eric Haney said.
"They don't look for public recognition," said Haney, a founding member of the Delta Force U.S. counterterrorist unit. "Within their own circle, they know who they are and what they've done, and they celebrate their comrades."
Special operations members often hunt for terrorists and wage wars by making inroads with local populations, learning their cultures and customs, and helping them shape the fate of their country, Haney said.
During the Vietnam War, the Army's Special Forces trained the Montagnards, mountain tribesmen, to fight the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese. In Afghanistan, Haney said, fewer than 2,000 Special Forces soldiers on the ground, fighting alongside opposition forces, helped bring about "the utter defeat of the Taliban."
The Rev. Paul Reinhard, 48, a Forest Lawn chaplain and former Green Beret, said that those who serve in special operations are both combat specialists and cultural ambassadors.
Depending on their expertise, special operations members might teach villagers how to build better plumbing or communication systems or provide medical aid, Reinhard said.
"They do it knowing that most people will never know what they do," Reinhard said.
Recently, Reinhard and his family were forced from their home in the San Bernardino foothills by wildfires. Reinhard, touching his hat, said he told his children to "grab this raggedy old green beret out of the closet."
In another Veterans Day observance, veterans of five wars and their families gathered at Riverside National Cemetery.
"I come here to cry," said Ted Chivers, 80, of Hemet, who arrived in Pearl Harbor the day after it was attacked. "You gotta come, to make yourself feel like you're not forgotten."
Ken Calvert mourned a former intern in his office, Todd Bryant, killed Oct. 31 when an explosion rocked his Humvee as it headed for Baghdad.
Mary Cain, 68, of Gardena brought her 12-year-old granddaughter to see the grave of the grandfather the child had never met. A boiler tender chief who spent his career in the Coast Guard, serving in Korea and Vietnam, he died in 1986.
"It makes us feel closer, like we're listening for him," she said of the ceremony.
At Forest Lawn, Victor Watson, 68, a retired Navy SEAL, said the ceremony offered a chance to be around people, regardless of whether they were "special ops" members, with whom he felt a certain kinship.
"It's a chance to touch base with friends, with people who covered your back forever," the Silver Lake resident said.
Jerry Rabinowitz, 78, served in the Army's 95th Infantry Division and said that he, like most people in the military, generally had no idea what the special operations members were up to.
"To the rest of us, they are the super soldiers," Rabinowitz said. "They are the best of the brave."