Red, white & blue salute to veterans – Annual event celebrates America

As is tradition, a giant American flag was unfurled as a major part of the town’s annual Salute to Veterans celebration. The veterans being honored were encouraged to be the ones to hold the flag. — John Ferris Robben photo

As is tradition, a giant American flag was unfurled as a major part of the town’s annual Salute to Veterans celebration. The veterans being honored were encouraged to be the ones to hold the flag.
— John Ferris Robben photo

Threatened rainstorms never arrived, allowing for the red, white and blue spirit to be on display without a hitch last Saturday at the town’s annual Salute to Veterans celebration.

At an earlier than typical start time of 9 a.m., the annual event filled the air with patriotic music and speeches and featured an art show about the history of the military put together by two Greenwich High School students. Additionally, World War II veterans were honored as military vehicles were on display and a giant American flag was unfurled by those in attendance.

The Salute to Veterans has been a tradition in Greenwich held on the weekend before the Fourth of July. For the past two years, Weston resident Alan Sharkany, a former Marine, has been in charge of coordinating it.

“We are here to honor those who have committed and sacrificed at such a high degree,” Mr. Sharkany said on Saturday. “They do it to maintain that which we love about this country, and that’s freedom.”

Selectman David Theis has also been a major force behind the salute and called it “a special day to honor the most special people in our lives.”

“We’re not just honoring the greatest generations but veterans from all the other conflicts who make it possible for us to meet here as we do in peace and freedom and without fear of retribution,” Mr. Theis said.

First Selectman Peter Tesei, Selectman Drew Marzullo and State Sen. L. Scott Frantz (R-36th) attended as well, enjoying the event as part of the audience.

Among the speakers for the event was U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), a Greenwich resident and former Marine. He told the Post that he was very happy to see the event reminding people what is at the heart of all Fourth of July celebrations.

“The town of Greenwich is showing what’s important about this holiday,” Mr. Blumenthal said. “It’s not the barbecues and the beaches and the sales at the mall. It’s the veterans and our flag and celebrating the freedoms that veterans have fought to keep. Freedom is never free and the men and women who have fought in war, particularly those in the greatest generation we are honoring here today have provided a model of service to the nation and we need to do more to keep faith with our veterans and leave no veteran behind when it comes to jobs and education and counseling and health care.”

Mr. Blumenthal sits on the Senate’s Armed Services Committee and had one son serve in Afghanistan in the Marine Corps and another who has just been commissioned as an officer in the Navy and is now in special warfare training. Because of that he says he sees first-hand what veterans today are going through and knows the importance of supporting their families.

The festivities did have a bit of a stripped down feel this year thanks to what are known as the “sequestration cuts.” The mandatory across-the-board cuts, which have hit several social services agencies in the nation extremely hard, were also felt by the military after Congress failed to reach a deal to avert the cuts, which had been designed as a kind of “poison pill” to get the sides to work together on a spending agreement. Instead, the cuts went into effect at the start of January and that this year, unlike in previous years, there was no participation from the U.S. Marine Corps’ Silent Drill Team.

But the effort was made to make up for it with a more musical event, featuring a couple of medleys from The Liberty Belles, veterans of USO shows all over the world, and from Hartford Police Officer Robert Iovanni and his wife Karen Wagner, who collaborated on several patriotic songs.

There was also an emotional moment when Mr. Sharkany presented the “true grit award” in memory of town resident Ryan Zimmerman, who was killed in a car accident on Christmas Eve 2005 right before entering the Marine Corps. Mr. Sharkany helped train Mr. Zimmerman for more than two years in preparation for him becoming a Marine and became visibly choked up when talking about him. He called him a “unique young man” and said he was one of the top candidates he ever had in the 20 years he had helped prepare people for Marine boot camps.

“In every way he excelled, in his conditioning, his leadership, his ability to be coached and he always set the standard,” Mr. Sharkany said in recalling Mr. Zimmerman. “He was an amazing young man and I learned a lot from him. We lost him too early.”

Retired Col. Jack Jacobs, a frequent NBC military analyst, was the keynote speaker. A Medal of Honor winner for his heroism in the Vietnam War, he urged everyone to “keep faith with each other” when remembering how far the country had come and what it took to get there. He discussed growing up post-World War II and the collective sacrifice in society, something he said has been lost today.

“Now less than one half of one percent of the American public wears a uniform and most Americans don’t even know anyone in a uniform,” Col. Jacobs said. “I believe in universal service. I think that everyone who is lucky enough to live in a free country owes it something in terms of service… It’s vitally important that we instill in ourselves and in our children the notion that service of some kind for the betterment of the community is important if we are to keep faith with those who serve and give us the freedom we enjoy today.”

He urged everyone to spread the message of the day’s event because this was something every generation has to be a part of or else the sacrifices of those who came before them would be lost. That was a message echoed by Greenwich resident U.S. Navy Rear Adm. John Weigold, the deputy commander for the U.S. Seventh Fleet on board the U.S.S. Blue Ridge off the coast of Japan.

“To all our veterans, to the fallen and to the families, there is no tribute, no commemoration, no praise that can truly match the magnitude of your service and your sacrifice,” Adm. Weigold said.

Greenwich native and former Navy SEAL Carl Higbie also spoke about the honor of the troops.

“It’s not doing what the popular thing is or what the fun thing is,” Mr. Higbie said. “It’s doing what’s selfless and what’s for the greater good. We want to say thank you to all who answered the call and who ran toward the fight when the country was looking for help.”

Adm. Weigold was more than a speaker for the event. His daughter Kelly teamed with Lizzy Trotta to hold the art exhibit. The two are the presidents and founders of the Helping Encourage Remembrance Of Extraordinary Soldiers (H.E.R.O.E.S.) Club at GHS, which is designed to increase awareness of veterans amongst youth.

There was a noticeably smaller crowd for this year’s event. The Salute to Veterans has attracted thousands of residents in the past and when it returned last year after a short hiatus it brought in big numbers. However this year, unofficial counts had the attendance at only a little more than a hundred people.

Despite that steep decline, Mr. Sharkany told the Post that there will absolutely be a Salute to Veterans next year and that he is already working on a plan to address the lack of attendance. He said he will personally visit with all the local American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) posts to speak about the event and get their advice and participation in preparing for next year.

“I want to make this a success,” Mr. Sharkany said on Monday. “The veterans that we’re honoring deserve it to be.”

At the event, Mr. Theis thanked everyone who attended especially with less “pop and sizzle” this year because of the sequestration.

“It’s very important that we keep this message alive,” Mr. Theis said. “The real purpose of this event is to honor our veterans, salute them and thank them in every way that we can.”


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