West Hartford’s Memorial Day Parade was canceled due to rain, but a ceremony that included placing of memorial wreaths was held in Town Hall.
By Ronni Newton
Although a forecast for rain prompted the West Hartford Commission on Veterans’ Affairs to cancel the Memorial Day Parade for the second year in a row, the town honored its fallen heroes in a touching ceremony held indoors at Town Hall.
A standing-room-only crowd of more than 100 gathered in Town Council Chambers for the ceremony which featured speeches by Town Manager Ron Van Winkle – who had been chosen as grand marshal of the parade for the second year in a row – Mayor Shari Cantor, Minority Leader Denise Hall, and U.S. Rep. John Larson.
The entire West Hartford Town Council was in attendance, as were many veterans. Honor guards from the American Legion Hayes-Velhage Post 96 and the West Hartford Fire Department participated in the ceremony. Rev. Terry Schmitt of the United Church of Christ, a former Board of Education member provided the invocation and benediction, and Hall High School student Clare Coursey sang the National Anthem.
Commission on Veterans’ Affairs Chairman Ken Colliton served as emcee, introducing Van Winkle, a Vietnam-era veteran, as someone who “certainly exemplifies what a true veteran is – a selfless man of service” who has given not only to his country but has served the community for the past 30 years. The focus of this year’s celebration was on Vietnam.
Van Winkle, 70, a West Hartford native who will retire as town manager at the end of June, shared his own story of military service.
He said he was in college early in the Vietnam era, but once he was in graduate school was drafted and sent to Fort McPherson Army Base in Georgia where he was responsible for computer programming and budgeting. He was there during the court martial trial of Lt. William Calley, who was convicted in the My Lai massacre.
Van Winkle said he listened to the stories of his fellow soldiers, many of whom had been to Vietnam and told harrowing stories of their experiences and fear, and decisions that no one should ever have to make.
“Those who served and who gave their last full measure, those who served and gave part of themselves, of their spirit should all be remembered,” Van Winkle said.
As Van Winkle was set to ship out to Vietnam, he was told “Son, don’t wear your uniform on the way to the West Coast.” As he was about to leave, his orders were changed because the computers had been pulled out of that location and he instead was sent to Germany where he spent the rest of his tour.
Van Winkle said that during the Vietnam era, 1964-1973, 8.7 million were on active duty, and more than 58,300 died and more than 300,000 were wounded. Sixty-one percent of those were under the age of 25 and 25 percent were draftees; 612 were from Connecticut; and 18 were from West Hartford.
The Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC, has the names of four men with the last name “Van Winkle,” he said. “Spec 4 Ronald Van Winkle never made it to Vietnam … But I am obligated as we are all obligated to remember those who gave their last full measure for their country, 58,300, those who were wounded in this war, 300,000, and those who served during this difficult and divisive time in our nation’s history and around the world.”
“I was pleased to serve my country during that difficult time, and I am delighted to serve West Hartford,” Van Winkle said.
Hall, who spearheads many veterans events including the placing of flags at Fairview Cemetery every Memorial Day and Veteran’s Day, thanked Van Winkle for helping make construction of the Connecticut Veterans Memorial in West Hartford possible and not just a dream.
The space that is in the center of the memorial is not just grass, Hall said, and what many don’t realize is that it’s the court of honor that blends the soil from battlefields and cemeteries from around the world and waters from the seven oceans combined with Connecticut soil. “We consider that area sacred ground,” Hall said. In Van Winkle’s honor, a marker will be placed in the center so that people will know it’s a sacred place.
After sharing a historical perspective of World War I, Hall said that there are several takeaways. It’s important to know our history in order to learn from it, she said, and to understand and never forget “that our armed forces will answer any call, and never let us down.”
“This is such a solemn and important job,” Mayor Shari Cantor said about speaking at the Memorial Day ceremony. “As a community it’s so important that we come together.”
A lifelong West Hartford resident, Cantor said, growing up in the 60s and 70s, she knew of the controversial Vietnam War through the media. She always felt a connection to and admiration for veterans through the stories of her grandfather, a World War I veteran, and her father who served in the army of occupation at the end of World War II.
Cantor said that like many teens she had a “bracelet” with the name of a soldier, either a POW or MIA. She wore it for many years, even after the war was over, and was always aware that she supported the troops. She never met the man whose name was on the bracelet.
On a recent trip through Normandy, Cantor said, she “that horrible kind of awesome, powerful and solemn” when she saw the fields of graves, marked with simple white crosses and other religious symbols. But even more the individual stories that make it so personal and real, and “make us feel the sense of duty, sacrifice, and pain.”
Larson said it’s a credit to the efforts of Vietnam War-era veterans that veterans today are honored as they should be.
“On this Memorial Day when we go home and we celebrate and we picnic, understand this, that less than 1 percent of the nation in a nation of 330 million people … serve in our military, including the reserves and national guard” and the Peace Corps and other service organizations. As we pay tribute, Larson said it’s important to reflect on the responsibility to serve, which doesn’t have to mean wearing a uniform.
Marching in parades, joining in civic activities at the local level are important, Larson said. “That’s service … service to the country as well in terms of stepping up and doing the right thing starting in your community and in the state and in the nation itself and is far more important today than it’s ever been.”
We need to create a culture of service and commit ourself to service to this community, this country, the state, Larson said.
Before the ceremony ended, Moe Fradette and Jeff Cole of American Legion Hayes-Velhage Post 96 read aloud the names on a banner that was on display, sounding a bell after each one, to honor the 18 Vietnam veterans with ties to West Hartford who made the full measure of sacrifice.
Taps sounded somberly as the crowd dispersed.
Residents celebrated Memorial Day in other ways as well. Earlier in the morning, when the Memorial Day Parade was to have been held, a small crowd marched the route along Farmington Avenue, from Woodrow Street to the Veterans Memorial, and stood silently in tribute.