Greenwich honors the fallen at Memorial Day ceremonies

Old Greenwich native Lt. Charles Baker spoke about the meaning of Memorial Day at a ceremony in Binney Park. —John Ferris Robben

Old Greenwich native Lt. Charles Baker spoke about the meaning of Memorial Day at a ceremony in Binney Park. —John Ferris Robben

Greenwich was in the patriotic spirit all weekend long with several parades and ceremonies to mark Memorial Day.

But while showing its patriotism is never something Greenwich is shy about, Marine veteran Christopher Hughes said he wanted to make sure that people remembered the true meaning of the day.

“Today is the day that we mark to honor all those who have been killed in battle and all those who made the ultimate sacrifice in defense of our constitution, this great nation and our way of life,”  Mr. Hughes, commander of the American Legion’s Post 29 in Greenwich, said. “Freedom and liberty are the most costly of man’s endeavors for they all too often require a payment in human lives to achieve, to secure and maintain. Today we honor all the brave men and women who have made that ultimate sacrifice in defense of our freedom. This is their day.”

Mr. Hughes acknowledged that this sentiment is often expressed around Memorial Day but also worried that the message was not truly getting through.

“I feel that over the years these words are said and heard so often that sometimes we actually forget the meaning,” Mr. Hughes said. “Sons and daughters, husbands and wives, brothers and sisters have willingly and courageously laid down their lives on the field of battle so that we here can enjoy what this great nation has to offer. They will never return home and that is why we honor them today.”

More than 200 showed up for the annual ceremony at Indian Harbor Yacht Club, with Long Island Sound as the backdrop. The crowd included U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), a Greenwich resident and a former Marine, First Selectman Peter Tesei, Selectman David Theis, Chief of Police James Heavey, a veteran too, as well as State Reps. Livvy Floren (R-149th), Stephen Walko (R-150th) and Fred Camillo (R-151st). Mr. Camillo, the son of a Marine, read the names of all those from Connecticut killed in the War on Terror.

The weekend was filled with parades all over town, in Byram, Glenville and Old Greenwich, for Memorial Day and Mr. Tesei noted that this ceremony was “probably the most solemn” of all the observances and he thanked everyone who made it possible.

“While we are blessed to have among us those who are currently serving in active duty and those in our emergency services, the day isn’t essentially about them, but solely about those who gave their lives in service to their country,” Mr. Tesei said. “This is a most fitting ceremony in one of the most beautiful locations in our community. It would not be possible without all you being here to show your respect and remembrance for those who gave that sacrifice.”

State Sen. L. Scott Frantz (R-36th) served as the event’s keynote speaker and during his remarks he talked about turning points in American history where things could have become very different. Mr. Frantz told the story of a Scottish sharpshooter fighting for the British in 1777 who is about to take a shot at an American soldier with his rifle but instead pulls back and warns about the waiting trap. The soldier who was spared? Gen. George Washington. Mr. Frantz then talked about 1805 when Lewis and Clark were continuing their cross-country exploration only to find themselves in a dangerous standoff with Shoshone Indians until the chief recognized their interpreter Sacagawea as his sister who had been kidnapped and sold 15 years earlier leading to valuable support instead of violence.

Then there was the story of World War II hero Gen. Jimmy Doolittle who braves the odds through bad weather and an early warning to lead a successful raid into Tokyo as the U.S.’ first real strike back against Japan post-Pearl Harbor and the 1962 Cuban missile crisis where President John Kennedy found a way to avoid a nuclear World War III by making the right choices.

“You have to ask yourself is it divine justice? Is it luck? Or is it those of us on the front lines who are always on their game and forever vigilant,” Mr. Frantz said. “Maybe, just maybe, it’s a combination of all three.”

Quoting the renowned French writer and historian Alexis de Toqueville that “If America stops being good, then it stops being great,” Mr. Frantz talked about the nature of Americans helping out those in need, even if it means putting their lives on the line in the armed forces, as something everyone could be proud of.

“This country is made up of people who give,” Mr. Frantz said. “Our instincts are such that we pass a hat to help any other person around us in need and we go to serve a greater cause, whether it’s the community, the state or the country all in the name of what we stand for. And while we are surrounded by altruists, there are no greater altruists than those on the front lines and who make the sacrifice for this country under unimaginable circumstances. They deserve our greatest respect and that’s what today and this entire weekend is about.”

As with all American Legion events, the flag for MIA/POW Americans was on display draped over an empty chair and Mr. Hughes reminded everyone there that while the numbers are going down there are still 73,624 unaccounted for from World War II, 7,883 from the Korean War, 126 from the Cold War, 1,642 from Vietnam and six from the war on terror. The flag represents the legion’s commitment to seeing them all returned home.

“They will never be forgotten,” Mr. Hughes said.

The ceremony also involved town youth as the Boys & Girls Club’s Honor Guard and the Greenwich Police Explorers played key parts in raising the flag and placing a memorial wreathe in Greenwich Harbor to honor soldiers lost at sea. But the connection to the Police Explorers went beyond that as Greenwich Police Officer Tom Huestis, who was also there as part of the GPD honor guard, was honored for his leadership of the police/youth initiative. Officer Huestis was presented with a citation from the state for his efforts, a certificate from the U.S. Senate from Mr. Blumenthal and a medal from the American Legion.

But this was only one of several remembrance ceremonies. After the Old Greenwich parade, one of the most popular events of the year in town, people gathered in Binney Park to hear from several speakers including Lt. Charles Baker, an active duty member of the U.S. Navy, who returned home to Greenwich for the holiday.

“As a kid growing up in Old Greenwich, I thought of Memorial Day as a fun event with outdoor barbecues, great parades, and a day off from school,” Lt. Baker said. “It wasn’t really until I landed on the flight deck of the USS Stethem in the Arabian Gulf in 2012 that I truly learned what Memorial Day was all about.”

That ship was named after a Waterbury man named Robert Dean Stethem who was a Steelworker Second Class in the Navy and was taken hostage on TWA flight 847 in 1985 when returning from an assignment in Greece. The hostages were held for 17 days and Mr. Stethem was beaten, tortured and finally executed by the terrorists.

“Robby’s purity of heart and character, coupled with the heinous nature of his untimely demise resonates with all members of our Navy and is why the ship is famous,” Lt. Baker said. “For the remainder of my life, Robby Stethem will be at the forefront of my mind on Memorial Day.  In keeping with my initial assignment to speak on what this day means to me, Memorial Day is a time to remind ourselves to remain steadfast and courageous in everything we do in life. I would like to take this opportunity to thank you all for your service in your capacity as volunteers in our community. It is never too late to start volunteering.  Service to your country is not necessarily defined as wearing a uniform or standing up to Islamic extremism in the face of impeding doom.”

A full text of Lt. Baker’s speech is online at Greenwich-post.com in the opinion section.

 

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