Ridgefield crowd honors veterans’ sacrifice and service
“The 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, 1918,” the Armistice ending World War I was signed, American Legion Commander George Besse said.
“That was 101 years ago,” he told the crowd standing in warm late fall sun in front of Ridgefield’s grand white-columned Lounsbury House on Monday, Nov. 11. “This year celebrates the 100th anniversary of the American Legion.”
Today, some two million veterans in 12,000 American Legion posts serve the nation, Besse said, with four main goals their focus: veterans affairs, national security, Americanism, and the education of children and youth about American values.
“We stand behind issues most important to our veterans,” Besse said.
But the nonpartisan organization also strives to serve the nation as a whole.“Our motto is ‘Veterans, still serving America,’” Besse said.
Cold war service
Featured speaker Ray Sementini came in the midst of a line-up of six people offering readings and remarks.
“My early years in school were during the World War II era,” Sementini said. “I do recall that feeling of patriotism.”
Sementini described his own work in the military, with the 54th Intelligence, Reconnaissance and Engineering Battalion in West Germany, near the border with East Germany during the cold war — a time of peace but great tension.
“I was never involved in any heroics,” Sementini said.
He honored those men and women who not only served, but took up arms and risked their lives to defend their nation. “They didn’t go to war because they love fighting,” he said. “They were ordinary people who responded to extreme times.”
To the gathered crowd, he said, “Please take an active part in defending our freedom, perhaps by teaching future generations what it means to be an American.”
Sementini, who had begun by saying how honored he was to be representing Post 78 — “a very special group of 140 American Legion veterans right here in Ridgefield”— closed with a simple statement: “I am proud to say I served in the United States military, and I’m proud to say I’m an American.”
Voice of the Legion
After beginning the observances by sharing thoughts on the founding of the American Legion, Commander Besse introduced Evelyn Carr, the young woman who has been singing at Ridgefield’s Memorial Day and Veterans Day gatherings since middle school, and is now a music student at the Julliard School — “our official vocalist,” he called her.
With her strong clear voice, she sang The Star Spangled Banner and, later in the program, America the Beautiful.
American Legion chaplain John Gillaugh offered the opening prayer, seeking protection for “men and women who gave their best when they were called upon to protect our country” and contributed to America’s “victories over tyranny and oppression.”
Kyela McGuire, a student who won the Ms. President USA competition in Ridgefield this year, said she was proud to join the Veterans Day ceremonies showing how thankful Americans are to those who had served their nation in the military.
“In my opinion, we should be thankful for them every day of the year,” she said.
Veterans “made a choice,” she said, and ”put their very lives on the line” to protect all Americans.
“They chose to put the country’s civilians — just regular people — before them, in an act of selflessness,” McGuire said. “...They are the ones who lay down in muddy trenches for God knows how long.”
She urged her listeners to make a practice of thinking daily about veterans’ courage and sacrifice.
“Wake up and greet the beautiful day outside and say: ‘Wow! Where would be be without our vets?” she said. “Without our veterans we would truly be nowhere.”
“God bless our veterans,” she said. “God bless America.”
Vets in poverty
First Selectman Rudy Marconi praised all veterans from those who stormed “the beaches of Normandy” in World War II to those drafted into the Vietnam War, and more recently “serving in the Middle East.”
Addressing the veterans, Marconi said: “It is your service and sacrifice that have kept our country safe and free for all of us.”
Tugging the conscience of each listener in the crowd on Ridgefield’s safe and lovely Main Street, Marconi offering statistics from on the “poverty status” of America’s veterans last year.
In the 18-to-24 age group, there were 231,000 veterans living in poverty in 2018, he said.
In the 35 to 54 age group, there were 252,000 veterans in poverty.
Ages 55 to 64, it was “over 300,000,” he said.
And age 65 and older, America’s veterans include “close to 500,000 men and women living below the poverty level,” Marconi said.
“That’s not right,” Marconi said. “That’s not right for America.”
In Connecticut, the poverty level so many veterans fall below is $25,000 a year for a family of four.
He urged anyone interested in learning how to help veterans living in poverty to contact his office.
“We will make an organized effort to help out,” Marconi said.
Veterans who have sacrificed for America are all around, a part of everyday life.
“It’s the cop on the beat,” Marconi said, “...the nurse who went to sleep sobbing every night at Da Nang, Vietnam…
“It’s the old guy bagging at the grocery store who helped liberated a Nazi death camp and wishes his wife were still with him, to hold him when the nightmares come.”
Marconi urged his listeners, “Just say ‘thank you’ — that’s all most vets need, and in most cases will mean more than any medals they received.”
Saints at war
Chaplin John Esposito of the Ridgefield Detachment of the Marine Corps League offered a prayer for all veterans.
“They are our sons and daughters, our brothers and sisters, our nieces and nephews,” he said.
He directly addressed the heavens.
“We ask that you keep them close to you, protect them with the armor of God,” Chaplin Esposito said.
He called America’s veterans “saints.” Again directing his thoughts above, he added: “You know that they are saints. When we go to battle to protect our homeland, that is not a hashmark across our hearts, it is a gold star in your book.”
Hearts at home
Capt. Lynn Isaac, a member of the American Legion, gave a reading invoking war’s terrible toll, that has “chilled the heart and dimmed the dreams of many a loved one left behind on the homefront.”
Before the ceremony closed with the gun salute by the American Legion honor guard, and Taps by two trumpeters from the Ridgefield schools, a final prayer was offered by Dino Calabro of the Veterans of Foreign Wars. He sought blessings for “the disabled veterans in our hospitals and also the homeless vets in our land.”
And, in words that could be a plea on behalf of all humanity, he asked, “Lord, grant that we may yet see the day when war and fear of war should no longer be.”