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‘Welcome Home’: West Hartford Celebrates the Class of 2023 Military Inductees

West Hartford Class of 2023 Military Inductees. Photo Credit: Bridget Bronsdon

Nineteen West Hartford families proudly gathered in the Town Hall auditorium on Tuesday evening to celebrate the ninth annual Military Inductee Ceremony. 

By Bridget Bronsdon 

As the graduation season is in full swing and students are looking towards the next chapter, West Hartford honored the Class of 2023 students who will be taking their next steps to serve in the military in some capacity, either directly joining a branch of the service, participating in an ROTC program, or attending a military academy. Two students are committed to joining the Israeli Army.

The American Legion Hayes-Velhage Post 96 proudly celebrated with all of the students and their families, veterans, and community leaders to salute the graduates. 

Families from the four West Hartford High Schools – Conard, Hall, Kingswood Oxford, and Northwest Catholic, plus four students from Newington High School – all joined to honor the mature and distinguished steps the graduates are taking. 

The ceremony began with the posting of the colors by the American Legion Honor Guard and the reciting of the Pledge of Allegiance led by Jaymes Richardson of Conard High School. Conard High School’s Solo Choir was also in attendance to perform a touching rendition of the National Anthem and “God Bless America.” 

Posting of the Colors by the American Legion Honor Guard at the Military Inductee Ceremony. Photo Credit: Bridget Bronsdon

Following the invocation led by Monsignor James F. Kinnane, Post 96 Commander Heidi-Anne Mooney took the stage. A conscious sense of pride rippled throughout the room as Mooney spoke to the parents. “You are going to see a different person than who you are seeing right next to you today. They’re going to walk taller, they’re going to be more confident, they’re going to have leadership skills that are going to blow your mind.” Mooney remarked.

“Wherever they go, the skills that they learned will go with them and they will have huge success,” she said.

Parents proudly looked on as they were told to write letters to their children as they embark on their journey. “It really helps them to get letters, it helps them to hear that encouragement,” Mooney said.

In closing her speech, Mooney offered words of encouragement to the graduates. “You’re doing something that’s great, that’s selfless, that has a lot of honor, and in some ways it’s scary, but you’re going to go out there and it’s going to be amazing.” The commander noted that wherever the students may land, “every job is equally as important … just go out there and do the best that you can do.” 

Heidi-Anne Mooney, Post Commander American Legion Hayes-Velhage Post 96, speaking to the 2023 graduates. Photo Credit: Bridget Bronsdon

Following Mooney’s pearls of wisdom, West Hartford Public Schools Acting Superintendent Paul Vicinus took to the podium to remind the audience that less than 1% of the population is actively serving in the military – making the graduates’ choice to serve all the more admirable. To the students he said, “Your selfless choice in calling to service is what brings us here together in celebration this evening.” 

Vincinus also remarked on an overarching theme of the evening, and one prominent in the military family – home, or in this case, a homecoming. “I have two words to share with our graduates and their families: welcome home,” Vicinus declared. 

“You see, regardless of what patch we wear, what branch of service we’ve entered, we are all part of a military family, and a shared culture that unites us and transcends petty differences that would otherwise serve to divide us. Whether you’re a Nor’easter, Titan, a Red Wolf, Lion, or a Wyvern – you’re all grunts, you’re all warriors, you’re all family,” Vicinus said. “And so I say, ‘Welcome home.’ Home connotes something different from a house or a dwelling, home is something you protect. Home is about family and a place where you can be yourself. Home is a place where you draw connections, a place where you can take risks, a place committed to your growth, your learning, and your achievement.” 

Home – a heartwarming concept to the students and families embarking on new journeys – was not the only theme emphasized. The new skills, jobs, responsibilities, and ways of life that the graduates will soon learn were not lost on the speakers.

“The military teaches you discipline over self-interest, character over popularity, teamwork above division, and dedication over apathy. The skills you learn in the military will carry you far in any career you choose to pursue, teach you to set goals, take initiative, and follow through,” Vicinus said. 

Paul Vicinus, acting superintendent of West Hartford Public Schools, passing on wisdom to students and families. Photo Credit: Bridget Bronsdon

In closing, Vicinus circled back to the notion of home. More specifically, family – and loved ones that have unwaveringly supported the graduates. “Your loved ones here today are your rock,” he said. “When you’ve given everything you have, they are the motivation to keep going. It is your connection to them at home that will help you to dig deeper and find that ounce of strength that tips the scale and sees you through. Unless we forget, their sacrifice is as great as yours. Their struggles, while perhaps not suffered in an austere environment, are no less significant. … So to your family, you will always be their favorite hello and their most difficult goodbye. You honor them through your example, so always remember to take pride in your service and strive to represent an example of generations who came before you. Welcome home.”

Following Vicinus’ heartfelt words, Maj. Gerald Gorss, Military Academy Liaison Officer at West Point and West Hartford native, took to the podium as the keynote speaker. Gorss had served as the grand marshal of Monday’s Memorial Day parade as well as keynote speaker for the ceremony that followed at the Veterans Memorial.

While Gorss had many gracious words to share Tuesday with the students and families, he was able to put himself in the shoes of those students, because in 2003 he sat where they sat. The major made sure the students knew that success might not come right away.

After sharing that he was not accepted to West Point until his third try, he called himself an “unremarkable” high school student. “I was average at everything, great at nothing,” Gorss said, as he went on to recount the lessons, skills, and benefits the military will offer the students.

“I learned to make decisions under pressure with imperfect information. I learned to manage stress, celebrate victories, and to comfort others in low moments. I learned the very real meanings of diversity.” he said. 

Major Gerald Gross, keynote speaker of the evening, speaking to graduates and families at the Military Inductee Ceremony. Photo Credit: Bridget Bronsdon

Gorss continued, “… You will learn the real meaning of teamwork, the real meaning of diversity, the real meaning of selflessness. It will shape you into a better follower, a better leader, and a better human if you let it. You will be mature beyond your peers, your viewpoint of the world will be broader and deeper. Learning how to sacrifice and learning what I’ve learned in the military has made me a better father, a better husband, a better employee, and a better teammate.” 

As Gorss closed by telling the students that their lives will be “immeasurably changed” he said, “Despite the things that you’ll learn and the benefits you’ll receive, there’s one piece to the military that surpasses them all in my humble view. It’s the bonds of friendship and camaraderie that will last a lifetime and beyond.” 

2023 graduates with family following the Military Inductee Ceremony. Photo Credit: Bridget Bronsdon

After closing remarks by West Hartford Board of Education member Ethan Goldman, who served 20 years in the military, the students were then called onto the stage to receive their red, white, and blue chords. Sentiments of pride, admiration, respect, and apprehension for the upcoming journey hung in the air as students were congratulated, applauded, and received advice from fellow veterans. 

West Hartford leaders and veterans welcoming graduates on the stage. Photo Credit: Bridget Bronsdon

Jaymes Richardson, a Conard senior going into the U.S. Navy explained that he was going into the Navy for a better future and was looking forward to furthering his education. 

Another soon-to-be graduate, Ryan Zydanowicz of Hall High School, will be heading to the Army ROTC at Syracuse University. Zydanowicz said that he is looking forward to meeting new people from other walks of life, becoming a better role model, and hopes to earn leadership experience. 

Shane Maloney, who is graduating from Conard High School this June, followed in the footsteps of some of his family members and is joining the Air National Guard. He will spend the summer and fall in training, but will attend UConn beginning the spring semester, with his education completely paid for.

West Hartford students receiving their chords at the Military Inductee Ceremony. Photo Credit: Bridget Bronsdon

As their senior year closes, the graduates can confidently look towards their future with the support of their loved ones and the hope that they will discover a newfound home while serving. 

The honorees recognized Tuesday are as follows: Aidan Aponte, Conard High School, Army National Guard; Tayla Berger, Hall High School, Israeli Army; Alejandro Clemente, Hall High School, U.S. Navy; Efrain Colon, Newington High School, U.S. Marine Corps; Nathan Cukierman, Hall High School, U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis; Mikael Dang, Hall High School, U.S. Army; Gabriel De Barros, Hall High School, U.S. Marine Corps; Kyra Dunnervine, Kingswood Oxford, West Point; Hayden Fish, Newington High School, U.S. Air Force; Jayden Flores, Conard High School, Army National Guard; Paul Giliberto, Kingswood Oxford, The Citadel; Zachary Hamilton, Newington High School, U.S. Navy; Reid Lamberty, Northwest Catholic, Air Force ROTC; Quinn LaRock, Hal High School, Army ROTC; Shane Maloney, Conard High School, Air National Guar); Uri Noyman, Hall High School, Israeli Army; Nicolas Ortiz Gomez, Newington High School, U.S. Marine Corps; Andrew Paridy, Conard High School, U.S. Marine Corps; Jaymes Richardson, Conard High School, U.S. Navy; Jared Stevens, Hall High School, Navy (Marines) ROTC; Niko Vega, Conard High School, U.S. Navy; Zana Walker, Hall High School, U.S. Army; and Ryan Zydanowicz, Hall High School, Army ROTC. 

West Hartford student receiving chords at the 2023 Military Inductee Ceremony. Photo Credit: Bridget Bronsdon

Post Commander Heidi-Anne Mooney congratulating military-bound students. Photo Credit: Bridget Bronsdon

Veterans receiving applause and congratulations at the 2023 Military Inductee Ceremony. Photo Credit: Bridget Bronsdon

West Hartford graduates, families, veterans, and leaders honoring Class of 2023 Military Inductees. Photo Credit: Bridget Bronsdon

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Bridget Bronsdon

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