Arlington, Va. -- President Obama today paid special tribute to an American treasure: the oldest known surviving veteran of World War II, Richard Overton.
At a mid-morning Veterans Day ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia, Obama singled out the 107-year-old Overton – who was in attendance – as a remarkable example of national service and sacrifice.
“He was there at Pearl Harbor when the battleships were still smoldering. He was there at Okinawa. He was there at Iwo Jima, where he said, ‘I only got out of there by the grace of God,’” Obama told a crowd of 4,000 veterans and guests gathered in the Memorial Amphitheater.
Obama recounted how the African-American Texas native, who volunteered for the Army in his 30s, returned home from war to a “nation bitterly divided by race” and one that did not always afford the support and respect that has now become a norm.
“He carried on and lived his life with honor and dignity. He built his wife a house with his own two hands,” Obama said.
Seventy years later, Overton is still living in the same house, although his wife passed two decades ago. He told USA Today in an interview that he enjoys “a tablespoon” of whiskey in his coffee each morning and smokes a dozen cigars a day. He also has an 89-year-old “lady friend.”
Overton still “rakes his own lawn, and every Sunday he hops in his 1971 Ford truck and drives one of the nice ladies in his neighborhood to church,” Obama said. “So this is the life of one American veteran living proud and strong in the land he helped keep free.”
The Honor Flight program facilitated Overton’s first visit to Washington earlier this year to see the World War II memorial, but he didn’t get a chance to meet the president. That dream was fulfilled this morning, administration officials said, when Obama hosted Overton as his special guest at a White House breakfast for veterans.
At the Arlington ceremony, Overton sat in the VIP box to watch Obama’s speech. He received two standing ovations from the crowd.
“Our message to all those who’ve ever worn the uniform of this nation is this: We will stand by your side, whether you’re seven days out or, like Richard, 70 years out,” Obama said, “because here in America we take care of our own, we honor the sacrifice that has been made in our name for this nation that we love, and we commit ourselves to standing by these veterans and their families for as long as we’re blessed to walk this earth.”