GROTON -- Veterans Day may have been observed around the country last Monday, but nowhere could the national day of remembrance have been more sincere than the gathering on Sawyer Common, assembled to give thanks for the sacrifices made by America's military.
"This is a day we honor all those people who served their country since it first began," noted Army veteran Thomas Hartnett. "We're gathered here in honor of those people and their families who gave so much for their country. This is the greatest country in the world."
"This great country here is the land of the free because of the brave and if it wasn't the home of the brave, we wouldn't have the freedoms we have today," added former state Rep. Robert Hargraves.
The Veterans Day event drew well over 100 people who endured sunny but cold weather to give honor and respect to veterans including keynote speaker Jeanne Usitalo-Niemoller, a captain in the Air Force.
Monday's event opened with a bell being rung 11 times marking the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month in which combatants laid down their arms following the signing of the Armistice ending World War I.
Such was the world's relief at the time, and it's hope that the war would prove to be "the war to end all wars," that in 1919, November 11 (Armistice Day) was declared a national holiday by President Woodrow Wilson, one in which citizens would bow their heads in gratitude for the sacrifices made by its soldiers during the war.
Sadly, by 1954, it was clear that the First World War had not been the war that would end all wars. Congress voted to change the name of the holiday from Armistice Day to Veterans Day to honor all former soldiers from all of the nation's conflicts.
"Everything is good about Veterans Day because on this day, we honor all those people who have kept our way of life safe and secure," said chief of police Don Palma looking on at Monday morning's event.
"We celebrate Veterans Day in recognition of what veterans did for us," said Selectman Peter Cunningham. "It's so easy to overlook those sacrifices in our day-to-day lives."
"We celebrate Veterans Day to honor the service of all those who served the country, both living and deceased," said Air Force veteran Robert Johnson, the town's veteran's agent. "Veterans Day is for all veterans and is a way where we can recognize, remember and honor them and the sacrifices they made. But in another way, it's also about the sacrifices made by their families. It helps us realize that everyone has been involved with military service in one way or another."
Before the ringing of the bell, Boy Scouts raised a flag to music provided by the Groton Brass Ensemble. That was followed by master of ceremonies Donald Black who recalled visiting with a pair of World War II veterans, and anticipating deep discussion on strategy and tactics, was disappointed to discover that all the veterans wanted to talk about were the "generalities" of the GI's life.
"Those memories," concluded Black of the lack of talk about actual combat experiences, "were locked in a vault but the combination of the vault was only known to them."
To illustrate his point, Black recounted the tale of Medal of Honor winner Capt. Ed Freeman who, despite suffering multiple wounds, made 13 trips in his helicopter braving enemy fire to remove the injured in Vietnam.
"He went to the grave with that story," said Black of Freeman who, like the two veterans with whom he visited, modestly never boasted of their combat experiences.
Following a rendition of the national anthem, state Rep. Sheila Harrington reminded those in attendance of the human cost of war, noting that suicide among veterans today has reached "epidemic levels." There are more than 13,000 children in Massachusetts, she said, without a parent due to their serving in the military.
"'Never has so much been owed by so many to so few,'" Harrington quoted from British Prime Minister Winston Churchill before noting that 99 percent of Americans owe the preservation of their freedom to only 1 percent of their fellows who currently serve in the military.
"The very least we could for them is to honor them on Veterans Day," Harrington said.
Black returned then to read from a letter by Sen. John McCain, recounting an incident from the years he was held prisoner in North Vietnam. In it, a fellow prisoner created an American flag from bits and pieces of cloth and the prisoners took to reciting the pledge of allegiance to it every day. Severely beaten when the flag was discovered, the man simply went to work and created another. McCain concluded with the admonition that the flag was more than a piece of cloth. It is a symbol of the sacrifices made by every veteran to preserve freedom.
Near the end of the ceremony, the flag that had flown over the common for the last 365 days was lowered to the sound of taps. Folded by the Boy Scouts and given to one of the veterans, it was passed from veteran to veteran until given to the widows of two local veterans who passed away during the last year: Everett Garvin of the Air Force and John Aiken of the Army.
Meanwhile, a new flag was raised. Stars cut from the flag that had flown over the common the previous year were handed out to the veterans by members of the Girl Scouts.
Finally, the service was concluded with Black inviting all those in attendance Monday to step forward and personally thank the veterans present for their service.