Recognizing our veterans for their contributions and sacrifices to keep this country free can't be limited to just a few days a year on the calendar. Soldiers have been serving and dying for our freedoms in Afghanistan and Iraq 24/7 for nearly a decade now. That's a full time commitment to ensuring the freedoms we all enjoy.

The veterans' stories we heard or read about last weekend, however, did keep Memorial Day and our veterans in the forefront of the news. Major League baseball has always been a staple activity on Memorial Day – the unofficial first day of summer – and this year the ballplayers themselves wore patriotic hats to mark the day.

The major league teams coupled with Major League baseball Advanced Media, Major League Baseball Charities and the McCormick Foundation to support Welcome Back Veterans, which was created to inspire Americans to give back to our returning veterans and their families. This program provides support for our veterans as they transition back into civilian life.

The major league players are also thankful for those who are protecting our freedoms, thus allowing them to showcase their talents on a sports entertainment stage.

We recall the day several years ago when then New York Yankee star Johnny Damon was honored by the baseball writers in that city for his work with soldiers who were wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"But for the freedom that we have, we all should pay more attention to people who go out there and fight for it,'' Damon said while choking back tears.

Mitch Maier, who now plays for the Kansas City Royals, also has a good perspective on his life and career.

"It's nice when people look up to ballplayers, but we know who the real heroes are," Maier said prior to Monday's game. "The veterans who have protected our country are the true heroes. We're just out here playing a game and entertaining. The veterans are at a different level. That's about life and death."

Maier's employer, the Kansas City Royals, paid special honors to Ralph Shackelford, a 92-year-old veteran of World War II where he earned two bronze stars while serving as a sergeant in the 9th Armored Infantry Division. Today, Shackelford serves as a spokesperson for Honor Flight, which flies World War II veterans to Washington free of charge in order to see their war memorial.

The old guard of veterans is now the World War II generation and this coming weekend at the Reading Regional Airport, the Mid-Atlantic Air Museum will be holding its 20th anniversary World War II Weekend. This has become one of the premier events in the country for World War II history buffs, preservationists and reenactors.

Along with the many World War aircraft and military vehicles, there will be a number of veterans themselves sharing their first-hand experiences of the war that changed the world. Although the airport grounds will be a sea of sights and sounds this weekend, any person attending can make it especially rewarding for the World War II veterans who attend.

Just a handshake to thank them for serving our country nearly seven decades ago might be enough to make the day even more special.

By Jim Zbick

jzbick@tnonline.com