West Hartford’s Memorial Day ceremony paid tribute to those who gave their lives in the service of the United States of America.
By Ronni Newton
West Hartford’s Memorial Day parade Monday morning was celebratory – with bright smiles on the faces on those who marched and those who waved from the sidewalks – but a ceremony following the parade served as a more serious reminder of the true purpose of the day, and called on the community to remember those who gave their lives in service.
“This is not Veterans Day, it’s not a celebration, it is a day of solemn contemplation over the cost of freedom,” Mayor Shari Cantor told the crowd gathered at the Veterans Memorial in West Hartford Center as she shared the words of Tamera Bolton.
Memorial Day is intended to recognize those in the military who lost their lives, making the ultimate sacrifice in the service of the United States. The granite wall, inscribed with names from each war that encircles the Veterans Memorial in West Hartford, is a tribute to the 236 fallen heroes from West Hartford – “those who fought and perished beginning with the Revolutionary War in 1776 through the Global War on Terror in 2005,” Cantor said.
“‘Remember me.’ Those two words, which resonate here, are the soul of this memorial, built by our community to honor those who gave their all when our nation was called to arms to defend the liberties we cherish,” said American Legion Hayes-Velhage Post 96 Commander Heidi-Anne Mooney, who served as emcee for Monday’s ceremony.
Memorial Day was originally called “Decoration Day,” Mooney said, a tradition that dates to Civil War times when flowers were placed on the graves of those who died in battle. The name was changed to Memorial Day following World War I, she said.
Mooney noted that this year is the 100th anniversary of Post 96, and she invited all veterans to join the organization, which engages in many volunteer activities in town. Those whose parents were veterans are also welcome to join Post 96, she said.
LtGen Edward Banta, a three-star general of the United States Marines Corps, who served as grand marshal of the parade, gave the keynote speech at the ceremony.
Banta, who grew up in both California and West Hartford and gradated from Conard High School in 1982, was promoted to his current rank on July 9, 2021, and serves as deputy commandant for Installations and Logistics, stationed at the Pentagon. His parents, Jane and Jack, have been West Hartford residents for 40 years, Mooney said. His wife, Molly, and daughters Belle and Bergen, also joined Banta for the ceremony.
Banta said it was an honor to return to West Hartford to participate in the celebration of Memorial Day. “What a great Chamber of Commerce Day,” he said following the parade.
And although he said he has participated in many parades through the years, “None of them have anything on what you saw today here in West Hartford. This has a degree of authenticity that you don’t find elsewhere, particularly in Washington, DC.”
When he joined the Marines in 1986, the Veterans Memorial had not yet been built in West Hartford, Banta said. “To come back and see this memorial in memory of those who not only have fallen over the years, but also have served, is truly heartwarming. … Those who made the ultimate sacrifice inscribed in the Wall of Peace, but also those who have served our nation reflected in the Walk of Remembrance,” Banta said, referring to the walkway that surrounds the granite stones of the memorial.
“Today is about remembering,” Banta said.
“Last week I visited Arlington [National Cemetery] to pay respects to a young marine from West Hartford, Lance Corporal Larry Philippon,” Banta said. “Larry’s is the last name on the wall.”
Philippon, a 2001 graduate of Conard who enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps in 2002, became an infantryman – “the soul of the Marine Corps,” Banta said. Philippon originally served in a ceremonial role, and had the honor of burying the flag at President Reagan’s funeral.
“But like all Marines he wanted to be in the fight, and after repeated requests he was eventually reassigned to the 3rd Battalion, 2nd Marine regiment based out of Camp Lejeune, North Carolina,” Banta said, and was deployed to Iraq. “And on May 8, 2005, his parents’ 24th wedding anniversary – it was a Sunday – he was killed by enemy small arms fire.”
Banta said he had left Iraq just a few months earlier, and never served with Philippon. “But I wanted him to know that we remember. If you visit, it’s Section 60, headstone 8181,” he said. “And here today in this tribute to those sons and daughters of West Hartford who have served and fallen, we remember. This memorial is reflective of the ideals of service and sacrifice embodied by those who served and perished, and reminds us that freedom is not free. From the first name on the wall of peace … dating to the most recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, we honor their memory and contributions in defending the American democracy. In short, we remember,” Banta said.
Cantor also spoke about remembrance. “As we remember and give our gratitude for all of the service members that have paid the ultimate sacrifice for our freedom, we think about the impact of the loss on their families, friends, and communities,” she said. “I also think about the responsibility that each one of us has in preserving and protecting the precious and fragile freedom that has been so hard-fought and with significant cost of blood and treasure. It is our duty, our responsibility, and our obligation as citizens to protect the freedom of all Americans.
“Freedom isn’t free – it takes work and sacrifice. It takes brave, courageous, thoughtful and caring leaders and public servants,” Cantor said.
In the past year, and particularly in the past two weeks, “we’ve failed to secure fundamental freedoms for our children and our grandchildren, our communities of color, and our veterans,” Cantor said. “To honor their memory, we must do better.”
As Cantor and Banta came forward into the center of the Veterans Memorial, Army veteran Rolf Knoll and Navy veteran Moe Fradette of Hayes-Velhage Post 96 presented the memorial wreath – a Memorial Day ceremonial tradition remembering those whose lives have been lost.
Monsignor James Kinnane, a retired colonel with the United States Army, gave the invocation.
Stephanie Reuning-Scherer, a 2021 graduate of Conard High School, sang a touching rendition of the National Anthem, and Ethan Striff-Cave of Hall High School and Luke French of Sedgwick Middle School performed a responsive sounding of TAPS to close the ceremony.
A C-130 military plane, piloted by Connecticut Air National Guard Major Sean Jacobson and Lt. Alexandra Pagoni, and with Capt. Aaron Sarwar as navigator, flew over West Hartford several times before, during, and after the ceremony.
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