It's been 30 years, but to this day, George Aggott, Vietnam-era veteran of the Army Infantry, still vividly recalls the days he spent in the service, and how the times have changed.
Although he came from a Navy family, Aggott decided to enlist in the Army.
"I couldn't swim," he jokingly whispered behind a cupped hand.
Two days before Aggott was scheduled to leave for Vietnam, then-President Richard Nixon had canceled deployments to the war-torn country for the next six months. Aggott, who only had three months left to his enlistment, finished his service at Fort Benning in Georgia. As Aggott descended the stairs from the plane and entered the terminal, a wad of saliva landed on the name tag of his uniform.
"Back then, you had to be careful where you wore your uniform. I got called all kinds of things, like baby killer," said Aggott. "I had volunteered because I loved my country, but it was very 'shoot the messenger.' Even if (the war) was politically incorrect, what people didn't understand is we (soldiers) didn't have a choice."
Aggott's memories from his time served were a far cry, he said, from the scene that unfolded at the Pepperell Senior Center on the evening of Nov. 9. In honor of the country's veterans, the Pepperell Army Community Covenant hosted its first Armed Forces Appreciation Dinner. Veterans from every conflict since World War II were in attendance. Members from each branch of the military were called to stand in the crowded room to boisterous applause in thanks for their service to the country.
"It's amazing to me. When I served, something like this would never have happened," said Aggott.
Nearly 150 people filed into the banquet room of the senior center as swing music played through the speakers overhead.
Irvin Sliger, who served in the Marines from 1942 to 1946, said he was pleased to have been invited to the dinner. Of his times in the Marines, he said, "I was happy to join the Marines, but I was twice as happy to get out."
Guests included not only veterans and active-duty service members, but also family members of those who were unable to attend. Linda Lynde, whose nephew, Ethan Colburn, is away in Army training, attended with her husband. Her father-in-law, Burton Lynde, Army Infantry veteran, was also present.
"We're very proud," said Linda of her nephew.
The evening began with an invocation and the national anthem and included several guest speakers: Lt. Col. Steven F. Egan, commanding officer at Fort Devens, state Rep. Sheila Harrington and state Sen. Eileen Donoghue were among those to address the assembled crowd.
"The support of the military from the community around is incredible," said Egan.
Donoghue, whose father served in the Marines during World War II, said she is keenly aware of the importance of military service, both then and now.
"Often times, we take for granted that service and that sacrifice," said Donoghue. "We see them in the grocery store, we see them serving their communities. They come back and they continue to serve and they do it for the love of their country, of our country."
During her address, Harrington referenced the recent political campaigns launched during the presidential election. She said she had seen a political advertisement entreating the country to remain the hope of the world. After speaking with a veteran who had been awarded the French Cross, she said, the words of the ad took on a whole new meaning.
"You've actually become the hope of the world because you've brought liberation and freedom from oppression all over the world," she said.
She added that she felt it was no coincidence that Veterans Day and Thanksgiving were so close on the calendar.
"If we didn't have our veterans and the people of the Armed Forces, we would not possibly be able to enjoy Thanksgiving in a couple of weeks. We live in a safe and secure country because of their sacrifices," she said.
Following the speeches, a buffet dinner catered by Devens Grill was served.
Several high school students from North Middlesex volunteered to help set up and clean up the dinner.
"So many heroes go unsung that it's nice to appreciate them," said student Danielle Krouse.
Aggott said the whole evening was a wonderful experience.
"The food was excellent, it was an excellent gathering of all the veterans, the speeches were all excellent," he said.
As the room slowly emptied following the event, members of the Pepperell Army Community Covenant were already planning for next year's event.
"I thought it was exceptional," said Chairman Stephen Themelis. "I was pleased to see this many people here representing the Armed Forces."