West Hartford resident Capt. Heidi-Anne Mooney, U.S. Marine Corps, was the keynote speaker at the town’s Veterans Day ceremony, sponsored by American Legion Hayes-Velhage Post 96, on Nov. 11.
By Ronni Newton
The West Hartford community came together at the traditional date and time – 11 a.m. on Nov. 11 – and despite the non-traditional requirement of needing to wear masks and remain physically distant, honored all who have served with a moving tribute.
The annual Veterans Day ceremony, held at the Connecticut Veterans Memorial in West Hartford Center, was hosted by American Legion Hayes-Velhage Post 96, and past post commander Moe Fradette reprised his traditional role of emcee.
A West Hartford resident since 2019, Capt. Heidi-Anne Aloise Mooney, U.S. Marine Corps, gave the keynote address, speaking about leadership, positive attitude, and the special brotherhood between members of the military.
The first thing she did was recognize a veteran in the audience – Tom DeMichele – whose duties while a member of the armed forces included standing guard over the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, which is about to have its 100th anniversary. “The tomb exemplifies valor and honor, and remembers those who died committing brave and selfless acts with no one to bear witness to them,” Mooney said.
“Veterans learn early on a lot about leadership,” Mooney said. “It’s not always very easy to be in the military or to lead others, especially when you arrive to your first unit as a 22-year-old female, 5-foot-2, 120 pounds, and they’ve never ever worked with a female ever before.”
Mooney, a native of Bedford, NY, has a degree in environmental conservation from the University of Colorado in Boulder.
She initially enrolled in the University’s Naval ROTC program, but the end of her junior year in college she was one of six individuals granted a presidential approval to switch to the Marine Corps. She originally had not considered the Marines as they had blocked women from serving in combat arm positions, but the block was lifted in 1993.
To learn to lead others, Mooney said she learned “to be true to my best self, to wear my uniform with dignity, to have vigor and enthusiasm, to be loyal to my superiors and considerate to those underneath me, and most of all … to have the courage to try again. To lead others I also learned that kindness and gratitude go a long way.”
Soon it was of no consequence that she was a female, because she had learned what she needed to do. “Be kind and thank others. Most of us learned that in kindergarten.”
She said she also learned that “attitude goes a long way.” When someone tells you that something can’t be done, she said, “that should be a huge motivator.”
She spoke about a “stop smoking” initiative she spearheaded in 1996 as part of a health and wellness campaign for the Marines. Years later, when working in medical sales, she ran into someone in a medical office who recognized her.
“I made eye contact with an older man in his late 60s. He seemed familiar to me. On my way out, he asked me, ‘Were you in the military?'” she said. They realized the connection, and Mooney said he told her, “Because of you, I stopped smoking, but it was after my heart attack.” He said he knew she would be mad, and her words from years earlier were what led him to quit.
“To lead others and get them to follow you, motivation can be a key to success,” Mooney said.
She said she has always believed that military is a brotherhood. “We all knew that we bleed red and we are there to protect each other and our country. Gender and skin color really did not matter. We had signed up to serve and we motivated each other through dark times as many in wartimes have had to do. It wasn’t fun … but we each were proud to serve and we chose to be there, and we got by and motivate each other no matter what we looked like.”
That brotherhood is hard to understand, she said. “Veterans share a deep and common bond, of valor and patriotism. I can travel all over the world and if I meet a U.S. military member I have an instant connection,” a connection which is even greater if that person is a Marine.
State Sen. Derek Slap (D-5th) said the celebration of Veterans Day, just about a week after Election Day, is particularly important the year, “because as a nation we need to come together and heal, and we can look to our veterans as an example of how to do that … to put certain things above other differences that we may have.”
Slap said veterans come to their mission from different backgrounds, but come together for the purpose of serving the country. We need to be able to come together and find that commonality as well.
“Let, on this Veterans Day, strive to make our veterans proud of us … with the courage, and the grace that our veterans show, and the dedication they show for our country. I think we need that now more than ever,” Slap said.
West Hartford Mayor Shari Cantor provided some historical perspective – staring one of the stories that has been unearthed through the Witness Stones Project.
She told the story of Peleg Nott, a West Hartford man who supported soldiers during the Revolutionary War by driving a cart with supplies of food, clothing, and weapons. “Nott drove the provisions cart for his enslaver, Jeremiah Wadsworth, and for the Patriot cause,” she said, and also supported the French troops that marched through Connecticut in 1781 and 1782 along what is now New Britain Avenue in West Hartford.
“In 1780, Nott was elected Black Governor of Hartford,” Cantor said. The election of a Black governor was, at the time, a cultural tradition that also allowed for some agency in the Black community, she said.
“At the same time the white governor, Jonathan Trumbull, was elected, both free and enslaved Blacks gathered in Hartford for the Black Governor ceremony which attracted me with fifes, fiddles, drums, and food for a few days of celebration.” After gaining this role, Nott was soon freed by Wadsworth – and later paid for the work he did on Wadsworth’s farm.
“On Veterans Day we have the chance to remember those who served our country, supporting those beliefs of freedom, liberty, and equality,” Cantor said. “And many veterans today look back on their time when they gave up everything on the home front to sacrifice for our country.”
Peleg Nott – as well as Prut, who died in the Revolutionary War and whose name was recently added to the Veterans Memorial as part of the Witness Stones Project efforts – also “fought for our freedom and helped to define who we are as Americans,” Cantor said.
“As veterans make the hugest sacrifice, we can do can do our job to honor and respect the freedoms that they fought for, treat each other with kindness, goodness, respect, and honor,” Cantor said. “God bless America, and God bless West Hartford.”
American Legion Hayes-Velhage Post 96 Commander Patrick Farrell said the post will be celebrating its 100th anniversary in 2022 – and will be “marching to 100” over the next two years.
He also noted an article in Wednesday’s Hartford Courant about the two remaining Elsner brothers, both World War II veterans. The younger of the men, 99-year-old Bob Elsner of West Hartford (his brother Jimmy is 101), has been a member of Post 96 for 75 years.
When presenting Elsner with a certificate honoring his 75 years, Harrell had a chance to look through some of his military memorabilia, including a Western Union telegram that his parents sent to their youngest son in 1942, the night before he was leaving for deployment in Europe, wishing him a “bright and cheerful future” in the Army and spirit of friendship.
All four of the Elsner boys served in World War II.
“I was so moved by the positive attitude of this telegram because I can’t imagine what was going through their minds as they were sending their fourth son into that arena,” Harrell said. “All four came home.”
Deacon Jim Hickey delivered the invocation and benediction Monday, and Conard senior Stephanie Reuning-Scherer performed stirring renditions of both the National Anthem and “God Bless America.”
Color guards from the West Hartford Police Department, West Hartford Fire Department, and American Legion Hayes-Velhage Post 96 also participated in the ceremony.
Andrew Mayo, supervisor of the Department of Performing Arts for West Hartford Public Schools, sounded TAPS to end the ceremony – a special bell cover keeping his bugle COVID-safe.
Last Saturday, a group of volunteers gathered at Fairview Cemetery to place flags at the graves of military veterans. A video tribute created by Nild Sansone of West Hartford Community Interactive can be viewed below.
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