SHIRLEY -- The Veterans Day Ceremony at Whiteley Park on Sunday, Nov. 11, commenced at 11 a.m., commemorating the date and time of the historic armistice that ended the fighting in World War I.
Quoting an "unknown author," American Legion Post #183 Commander and Chaplain Charles Church in his introductory remarks noted the continued existence of "conflict in the world" and the "peace and freedom" enjoyed in the United States. "Part of the cost has been paid by Americans who answered the call to military duty ..." he said.
Veterans Day is a national holiday set aside to honor them all.
Keynote speaker Lt. Col. Steven F. Egan, commander at Fort Devens, however, turned the tables, thanking those who support veterans and active service men and women in times of peace and war.
His speech focused on three topics: appreciation, sacrifice and dedication, applying all three to those who support service men and women as well as those who serve. "We appreciate what you do," Egan said, from military discounts to "events like this."
"We don't do this alone," he continued, lauding local support in Fort Devens communities that he found was "unsurpassed" in his travels around the nation.
Sacrifice is also shared. "It takes a lot to be in the military," Egan said. But it may be even harder for the families. "What you do for us speaks volumes," he said. "We volunteer, you don't sign up but are part of it." Waiting is hard, and sometimes families get the "bad news" they feared might come.
The previous day, Egan attended a dedication ceremony in Groton, where a park was named for a young marine who died serving his country. "Hundreds ... turned out, he said, and those who spoke included teachers and coaches as well as friends and family, "people touched by his service and his sacrifice."
As for dedication, support on the home front makes it possible, he said.
When Egan joined the Army in 1989, his entrance to West Point committed him to five years of service, but the nation wasn't involved in any conflicts then and he was hopeful the situation would continue throughout his tenure. It didn't.
"Then came Desert Storm" and subsequent U.S. involvement overseas, he said. Five years grew to 18. The Army became his career. He has no regrets, loves his job and is grateful to his family, friends, community members -- all the civilians who support him, he said.
Today, there are 2.5 million service men and women who signed up knowing they'd likely be deployed "to a hostile country," Egan said, many of them more than once.
Recalling his own time in Iraq, he said some of the recruits coming in were kids "right out of high school," others college students who took time off to serve their country. In his view, that kind of dedication belies talk one hears of the "me generation," he said.
"These communities" brought up kids who are now serving in the military," he said. "My hat's off to them!" And to the veterans who paved the way. "I truly appreciate what you have done," he said. "Thank you for your service."
Elaine Decell is past president of the American Legion Post #183 Auxiliary. Her speech focused on the women who wait. "Unlike Memorial day," which honors fallen heroes, Veterans Day is a time for families to come together, she said.
"You've heard of the band of brothers? I'm part of a sisterhood" that helped keep things going on the home front, Decell said. When men went off to fight during the Civil War, both world wars, Korea, Vietnam and current conflicts.
Listing some of the local auxiliary's supportive activities today, Decell said the group takes Christmas presents to the Veterans Hospital in Bedford each year and has collected donations for veterans service dogs and later Homes for our Troops.
"Some things never change," she continued. "Brave men and women serve and their families wait." Citing home-based support from World War II victory gardens to cookies sent to troops in recent years, she said the burden of war is shared by those left behind.
Connie Tung, for example, whose husband, Sgt. Baxter, was killed in the Korean War, leaving her with three kids to bring up alone, Decell said. Today, Tung is an active auxiliary member and cares for the flowers in Whiteley Park, along with her son.
"What you have here is ... proud Americans," she said, scanning the appreciative crowd. By sticking to "founding values" and preserving memories, "we will prevail," she said.
World War II Marine veteran Norman Albert spoke next. His speech paid homage to "a special group of veterans" that he said was not given the appreciative homecoming they deserved. "They deserve respect and recognition for their service," he said.
What is a veteran?" Albert asked. Not all faced enemy fire, landed at Normandy on D-Day or braved the snowy fields of Belgium. Not all Marines served in the Pacific. Not all Navy veterans manned a battleship. Not all Army veterans sloshed throughout the rice fields of Vietnam. But almost all of them have "amazing stories that we'd like to hear," he said.
Albert enlisted in 1944 at age 17 and after "three grueling weeks at Paris Island, followed by base combat training, he joined a platoon known as "the fighting 76-ers," he said. "We were a cocky bunch!" Selected at random to serve at Quantico, where he helped train officers for combat, he stayed stateside while his buddies were sent to Okinawa, he said.
Later, Albert's division was tasked with disarming Japanese soldiers in China, where an internal conflict was going on. "The Communists didn't want us there," he said, and 11 service men were killed, 43 wounded as a result. Some were taken prisoner. "But the War Department didn't issue Purple Hearts to those men," since technically they were not in battle. "They were the enemy, I call that a war!" Albert said, still vehement after all these years.
The good news is the War Department has since reversed that decision and awarded the men the medals they earned, he said.
Today, there are "wounded warriors" coming home with lost limbs, concussions, severe burns. The same thing happened during World War II, he said. Although he knows of no Shirley survivors among the former group or the latter, a "handsome young Marine named Martin Gendron came back from the Korean War with "half his face shot off," he said. After several painful surgeries, Gendron decided to live with the scars, Albert said.
Gendron "never complained, never looked for pity and was always in a joyful mood," Albert said. In 1958, he served as commander of the American Legion in Shirley.
He died while out on a boat, doing something he loved, fishing. His tombstone reads "Gone fishing," Albert said.
The story illustrates what being a veteran means to him, Albert said. "When you meet a veteran, say thank you," he concluded.
The final speaker was Leslie Seidel. Expanding on Albert's theme of the unappreciated Vietnam veteran, she cited a proclamation President Obama made on March 29 this year, marking the date as Vietnam Veterans Day.
In his speech at the White House that day, Obama spoke of veterans returning home with shrapnel, scars and post traumatic stress, and of names etched into a black granite wall in Washington, D.C., honoring the 58,000 service men and women killed in the Vietnam War and of the 3.4 million who served. More than 100,000 were wounded.
Now, finally, their service has been properly recognized, Seidel said. "You did your job, served with honor and made the United States proud," she said, quoting President Obama. "Thanks for your service and welcome home!"