Covenant of Care honors returning soldiers

The holidays are always a time when there are homecomings in Greenwich, but several of them deserved special recognition late last month when five returning soldiers were welcomed home with great fanfare.

At a special ceremony on Dec. 20 at the town’s Public Safety Complex, the Greenwich Military Covenant of Care, an organization dedicated to helping local military families, welcomed home U.S. Navy Lt. James Waters, Army 1st Lt. Matthew Carstensen, and Navy veteran Jacob Isbrandtsen and his brother Marine 1st Lt. Nicholas Isbrandtsen. Peter Purcell, an infantry medic in the National Guard, had been hoping to make the ceremony as well, but his holiday travel from Baltimore had proved to take longer than expected.

The ceremony was put together by Bruce Winningham and the covenant’s volunteers. Mr. Winningham started the covenant as a way to show support for all families who had to sacrifice when soldiers were on active duty deployment overseas, and he served as an unofficial master of ceremonies for the event, which featured a police honor guard and several veterans in attendance as the Public Safety Complex was packed with people.

 

But Mr. Winningham was hardly the only speaker of the evening. Not only did the returning soldiers each get a chance to say a few words but their families did as well. Town resident Deb Schiano, mother of both new Marine Tyler Schiano and Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Joseph Schiano, who served multiple tours in Afghanistan and then was tragically killed in a car accident in Somers, N.Y., thanked the community for all it did to support the troops and military families such as her own. She also spoke a little bit about her own experience as the mother of soldiers in dangerous deployments.

“At times you feel isolated and alone because you don’t know anyone else who is going through this experience,” Ms. Schiano said. “Yes, you have your family and your friends who are there for you and you are so very grateful for them, but you are left in a position where you have to plan your son’s funeral. I knew the danger he was facing and I was so afraid I would never be able to talk to him again. I thought there was something wrong for me for thinking that way.”

Ms. Schiano said it was only when she found an online network of other military parents that she had an outlet for her fears and people she could talk to who were in the same situation.

Empty chairs were left in honor of Cpl. Schiano and 1st Sgt. Edwin Rivera, a member of the Connecticut National Guard killed in Afghanistan in 2010.

Suzanne Darula, mother of Marine Sgt. Joseph Darula, talked about how proud she was of her son’s service over two tours of duty in Iraq and how relieved she was when he returned home safely. Ms. Darula said her son was in a brotherhood with his fellow marines but she, too, was in a special group, a sisterhood of “military moms,” and she said she was so happy to have that in her life. Sgt. Darula was among the veterans in attendance and received a round of applause from the audience.

Greenwich resident Cynthia Blumenthal spoke, not just as the wife of U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, himself a former marine, but as the mother of Michael Blumenthal, a first lieutenant in the Marine Corps who has just completed a 30-month active duty tour that included time in Afghanistan, and of a second son who is entering the U.S. Navy this month.

“When I think about what it means to be the mother of someone who serves, I think the thing that strikes my mind the most is that there are so many different ways to serve,” Ms. Blumenthal said. “This is not the way a mother would choose for a child to serve in many instances. But what’s important is that we support our children’s desire to be a servant and to be appreciative and grateful for what it means to be an American, however he or she chooses to do that.”

Ms. Blumenthal noted the time her husband had spent recently in the state in the aftermath of the Newtown shootings and how too often people focus on “what’s wrong in this country.” She said the caliber of the people in attendance at the ceremony showed instead what was right, and said her husband called today’s soldiers “our new greatest generator.”

“To see them stepping forward and volunteering to make a difference and be passionate about serving something greater than themselves is inspiring, and I salute all of you here,” Ms. Blumenthal said.

Christopher Hughes, commander of American Legion Post 29 in Greenwich, said the families deserved everyone’s support.

“When you look at these excellent young men and women who have raised their hands to serve our country, you can’t help but look back and think how amazing the families that they come from must be,” Mr. Hughes said. “We owe those parents a great debt of gratitude for raising children who have grown up to have such a sense of duty, honor, courage, and commitment to serve us.”

The Patriot Guard Riders also attended the event, just as they greeted all returning soldiers throughout the state. While they typically do not speak at ceremonies like this, Mr. Winningham was able to coax Gregg Barratt, commander of the Connecticut group, up to the podium.

“Our motto is ‘Standing for those who stood for us,’” Mr. Barratt said. “Any time and any place, we are here for our soldiers and our first responders. When we see the flag waving, you know that’s the spirit of the heroes, and if you saw the flag out there tonight blowing in the wind it means that people who are not with us are with us in spirit.”

Greenwich High School students Lizzy Trotta and Kelly Weigold also spoke about their work creating and leading the HEROES Club at school to support soldiers. This is a subject Kelly knows all too well since her father, U.S. Navy Admiral John Weigold, who currently serves as a reserve special assistant to the commander for the U.S. European Command, was in the crowd.

“We understand the gravity of war and the wake of its effects,” Kelly said. “We want to be able to make a difference, too, and thank our service men and women for their sacrifice.”

Lizzy added, “We as young people can’t say enough to express our gratitude and voice our support for our service men and women. We see students every day dedicated to the cause of serving our country. We see them in our hallways and in our classrooms.”

It was the returning soldiers who were the star of the show, though, as they each spoke briefly and thanked everyone for their support and the support they had shown their families. That even extended to a little courtesy from Chief of Police James Heavey, a veteran himself from the first Gulf War. When Jacob Isbrandtsen pulled out an outstanding parking ticket and jokingly wondered if anyone would be able to take care of it for him, Chief Heavey himself stepped to the podium and tore the ticket up, to the delight of the audience.

“That was a little bit more help than I was looking for, to be honest,” the Navy veteran laughed afterward.

Lt. Carstensen gave a thank-you of his own to the crowd, saying the work of the covenant and all those who support it was “noted, necessary and noble.” He thanked people for everything they did to support their families and the families of fallen warriors like Lt. Schiano.

“It shows the full depth of the support you provide, and it’s very much appreciated,” Lt. Carstensen said, urging everyone to keep the troops in their thoughts and prayers.

Lt. Waters said his fellow soldiers would need help when they returned home, especially when it came to finding a job.

“There are a lot of men and women coming home from war and they need jobs,” Lt. Waters said. “These are really amazing and talented people who have had incredible experiences. These people know leadership. They know how to succeed in difficult situations. They know how to navigate through bureaucracy. They have knowledge of foreign cultures, and perhaps most importantly, they know how to take care of their teammates and co-workers. If you want a successful business, I’d hire those people.”

Both First Selectman Peter Tesei and Selectman David Theis attended the ceremony, as did state Sen. L. Scott Frantz (R-36th District) and state Reps. Livvy Floren (R-149th District) and Fred Camillo (R-151st District). Mr. Theis spoke on behalf of the town government and as a strong supporter of the covenant. He was one of the driving forces to place American flags along the Post Road bridge over the Mianus River, and he told the Post he was honored to have been a small part of the ceremony. He was given an American flag used by Alpha Company, a National Guard unit from Connecticut that served several tours, and Mr. Theis said it will now go in a “prominent place” in Town Hall.

“It was an honor to be given this flag,” Mr. Theis said. “We have had so many men and women from our community who have served. They’ve given of themselves to protect our freedom and our way of life so we could all be here tonight and gather freely like this in peace without fear of retribution. It’s a debt we can never really repay, so I’m happy to show my support any way I can.”

 

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