AYER -- United States Navy veteran and past American Legion Post 139 Commander Frank Harmon gave the keynote address at the town's annual Memorial Day observances Saturday morning, sharing the speakers' podium with state Rep. Sheila Harrington, 1st Middlesex District, and Selectman Gary Luca.
"In a celebrity-obsessed culture" that spotlights stars on TV's American Idol, it's important to remember who America's "real stars are," Harmon said.
The real stars are U.S. service men and women, he said, citing acts of courage that cost two of them their lives in Iraq. A soldier who died while disarming a bomb and a soldier who "threw himself" on a bomb as it detonated, saving the life of a little girl in Baghdad while leaving behind his own little girl in California.
Not all veterans have seen combat, but all faced risks by joining the service, Harmon said. And there are many unsung heroes among them, like 17-year-old Jack Lucas, who embellished his age to sign up during WWII and fought at Iwo Gima. Or Senior Airman Michael Burns, 23, killed Sept. 21 in Kandahar, Afghanistan, leaving a wife and 1- year old child.
"We must support them," Harmon said. Those who fell in battle and those who came home wounded.
There are 23 million veterans in the United States today and all of them deserve our gratitude, Harmon said. "Say thank you!"
But "true appreciation is through deeds, not words," Harmon continued.
For example, employers should try to hire recently discharged veterans, helping them transition back into civilian life.
When lawmakers "complain" about the cost of veterans programs, they should be mindful of the services rendered by veterans, he said, some of whom need help now.
Medical services, for example.
Forty thousand service men and women have been wounded since hostilities began in the global war on terror, Harmon said, emphasizing that women as well as men have died in the service and that not all their wounds come from war. Women veterans have "unique needs" that must be addressed, he said, such as breast and cervical cancer and domestic violence.
Homelessness is another problem veterans face and 47 percent of homeless veterans served in Vietnam. "They made great sacrifices," Harmon said, leaving their families, missing birthdays and graduations. Many of the wounded lost limbs, and many of those who served lost their lives, he said.
These are debts that can never be repaid, but their deeds deserve the nation's endless gratitude and continued support, Harmon went on, noting the motto of the American Legion National Commander: SAVED, which means serving all veterans every day.
The 19th Century writer John Stuart Mill called war "an ugly thing," but he also said that having nothing one is willing to fight for is even worse, Harmon said. Blessed with a history of veterans who were willing to sacrifice, fight, even die for the nation, Americans should and must remember and honor them, he said.
Peace on Earth
Harrington also quoted a 19th century writer, poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. "In despair I bowed my head," Longfellow wrote as he reflected on the Civil War, evoking a sense of disillusionment and lost hope for the "peace on earth" or "good will" among men celebrated in a popular Christmas Carol.
But just as the poem ends on a hopeful note, Harrington said she, too, pondered a similar question when she went with a group of area veterans to a cemetery in Winchendon to plan the recent re-dedication of a monument to those who fought and died in the Battle of the Bulge during WWII, including 11 African American soldiers history had forgotten.
Those men "put their lives on the line" for freedom, to end oppression and preserve liberty, just as Union soldiers did in the Civil War, she said. Just as military men and women have been doing ever since, on the battlefields of WWII, in Korea, the jungles of South East Asia, the Persian Gulf, Iraq and Afghanistan.
But American soldiers also sought to bring "good will" in the form of medical supplies and shelter to civilians in those countries, she said.
Harrington retold a story she heard from WWII veteran Joe Landry, of Shirley, who fought in the Battle of the Bulge. Landry said he and his comrades gave their chocolate rations to French children, a small gift that showed "good will" at a time when there was "no joy" in German-occupied France during that season of "peace on earth," she said.
"On this day," it doesn't matter whether the nation's veterans died in battle, from an illness or in an accident, only that they all served, were all beloved by their families and deserve to be remembered. "On Memorial day," we must remember and honor them," she said, now and all year, especially when the "peace on earth" season rolls around again.
"Is this the greatest country in the world or what?" Selectman Gary Lucy asked the small crowd gathered outside Town Hall in a cold mist, as the Ayer Memorial Day parade halted in the street, enroute to the final ceremony and gathering at Pirrone Park.
The question to ponder today -- "in our schools, at work," is how can we best honor our veterans," Luca said. Noting a national history full of stories about courage and sacrifices, he said the nation's veterans represent "the best," in strength and in character," and it is "imperative" for all Americans to remember that.
President Abraham Lincoln spoke of the "sacred obligation" the United States has to its wounded war veterans, to "care for him" and for "the widows and orphans" of those who died. That quote now appears over the door at the Bureau of Veterans Affairs, Luca said.
"They swore to defend all of us," Lucas said, and now we must commit to them. "They fought and died for us."
American Legion Post Commander Betty Ann Motozel concluded the ceremony, thanking all of those who participated in the parade - including the Scotch Highland Pipes and Drums Marching Band from Leominster - local scouts and schools, Police and Fire Departments, a contingent from Fort Devens and sponsors like Dave Berry, who donated refreshments for activities to follow at Pirrone Park.