LEWISTON — Gary O'Connell felt like a veteran six years ago, even as he led a squad of young soldiers in Iraq.
"I knew that we were making history," said O'Connell, who served with the Maine National Guard's 133rd Engineer Battalion. "I could see it. I could feel it."
He had joined the American Legion before he left. And when he returned, he helped his post in New Auburn organize a group of motorcyclists to ride together, sometimes in funerals for fallen soldiers.
He knows that he is an exception, though.
Some of the men and women in his squad didn't feel like veterans when they returned from the war on a cold night in 2005, he said. Some still don't.
Most of the faces of the veterans who saluted, paraded and prayed at Friday's Veterans Day ceremonies in Lewiston were chiseled from an earlier generation. Many served in Vietnam. More were in World War II. Others went to Korea, fought in smaller conflicts or served during times of peace.
They were 60, 70 or older.
"We'd love to have more of the younger people," said organizer Bert Dutil, a Korean War veteran. "We welcome all of them. Many don't have the time to participate."
Too many are busy supporting their families, Dutil said.
But it weighs on groups such as the L&A Veterans Council, which sponsored the morning tribute at the Lewiston Armory and the afternoon dedications at Veterans Park. The latter event featured the unveiling of another memorial tablet with the engraved names of 217 area veterans.
They also unveiled a World War II-era Willys jeep, donated by Dolard "Del" and Priscilla Gendron of Lewiston on behalf of several veterans in the family. Dolard Gendron served in the U.S. Navy in World War II.
In the morning, representatives of the military paraded in the Armory alongside the Legion members and the Knights of Columbus.
Paul Bernard, a Vietnam-era veteran and former head of the L&A Veterans Council, said the aging issue weighs on members at every Legion and VFW hall in the area.
"I can't tell you how many meetings I've attended where they wondered how they can get younger people to participate," Bernard said.
Those veterans must do it in their own time, he said.
Just as the Army learned to give returning soldiers time to reunite with their families before throwing elaborate welcome-home events, the veterans groups have learned to wait for the men and women to make the first move, he said.
And maybe the up-and-coming generation will think differently. Alongside the service groups, Friday's armory event included reviews by Lewiston High School's Army Cadets and Air Force Junior ROTC and a bunch of Young Marines from the Lewiston-Auburn and Livermore areas. They ranged in age from 8 to 18.
"It's great to see the young faces," Bernard said.
They changed the look of the event, as did Master Sgt. Normand Roy, a longtime friend and Army buddy of O'Connell's.
When an honor guard of aging veterans from New Auburn's American Legion Post 153 paraded around the armory, Roy, a 48-year-old Iraq War veteran from Lewiston, paraded with them.
He did it despite constant pain.
Roy, who has served for 31 years in the Maine National Guard, suffered a noncombat-related injury to his knee in Iraq, where he served in 2004 and 2005. On Friday, the knee was swollen and sore.
"There are a lot of people here who have had it a lot worse," Roy said when his group was finished. "I was proud to be with them."