The Town of West Hartford held its annual Veterans Day ceremony on Sunday, and guest speaker CSM Paul Vicinus thanked all who have also served and shared what being part of the military service means to him.
For a while, Paul Vicinus struggled with how to respond when people approached him and said, “Thank you for your service.”
Vicinus, command sergeant major of the 169th National Guard and veteran of Operation Enduring Freedom, was one of the speakers at West Hartford’s Veterans Day ceremony on Nov. 11, held at the Connecticut Veterans Memorial in the Center.
“You’re welcome didn’t seem appropriate,” he said. “It felt trite, aloof, even a little arrogant. But moreover, it felt too short and too shallow, as if the transaction were complete. … I struggled with that as there was something missing. There is a depth of emotion tied to service that is difficult to express.”
Vicinus, who is also an assistant superintendent of schools in West Hartford, told of a litany of his experiences as a soldier, including the death of a fellow serviceman –a friend – whom Vicinus said would be okay, only to find out he later died; the physical and emotional wounds some of his fellow soldiers carry with them.
He asked if people really see what veterans’ service means, the collective psychological and emotional toll service takes, the price that is paid – not just by veterans but also their families – for answering their country’s call to arms.
“Do we see the dinner table with one less place setting, and the widow putting down dinner in front of their children,” he said. “When they say, ‘Thank you for your service,’ I found a reply. ‘It is my privilege and my honor,'” said Vicinus.
“My time as a soldier has granted me perspective,” he said. “Soldiers and military families alike have learned that perspective.”
Vicinus said he learned what it means to be wet.
“My wife yells at me when it’s raining and I don’t take an umbrella,” he said. “She says, ‘You’re gonna get wet.’ And I kind of laugh. That’s not wet.”
Vicinus said he remembered during basic training at Fort Bening, Georgia, the school would have been called 90-90-90: 90-plus degrees every day, 90 percent humidity and packing 90 minutes of training in one hour.
“It was so hot that our green uniforms were stained white with the salt of our sweat, right up to when we went into the field for a one-week training exercise where it rained every day for 23 hours out of every 24,” he said. “There was nowhere to take shelter. We were truly wet.”
But, Vicinus said, he had perspective as he wouldn’t compare it to a Navy SEAL who underwent BUD/S training or veterans of Vietnam who marched in the jungle for days in downpours.
He also recounted how hungry he was at times during his service, but that paled in comparison to the hunger some POWs experienced on meager or no rations.
Vicinus said he learned what it means to be tired, such as having only had a few hours of sleep during the week and driving in a Humvee hallucinating and realizing “you’re no longer safe.”
“But I don’t compare it to what a soldier feels on the line when they are guarding the wire and they are worried for their own life and those next to them, that the enemy may come crawling up during a few precious moments of sleep their able to steal,” he said.
He also said he learned what it means to trust, to fight side by side with brothers and sisters, trusting his life and their lives with him.
“There is a common bond we bring to our service that remains unspoken,” he said. “We have the best military in the world because we serve not just with our bodies, but with our minds and our hearts. It is that for which I am truly grateful and I say to all of you, ‘Thank you for your service.’”
Mayor Shari Cantor thanked the approximately 75 people who attended the ceremony and reminded people that this year Nov. 11 marked the 100th anniversary the Armistice was signed, ending World War I.
“Over 30 nations were at war between 1913 and 1918,” Cantor said. “It was the first modern war with the introduction of air warfare and tanks, with 65 million troops world wide fighting in battle.”
The U.S. entered the war in 1917, with 5 million troops serving our country, Cantor said, noting that she had a personal connection to the conflict.
“My Jewish grandfather served in World War I,” Cantor said. “He was shot while serving in France and was sent home. He had escaped persecution in Poland at 17 and was drafted shortly after he arrived in New York, barely speaking or reading English.”
Cantor said she thinks about her grandfather and her father, who served in World War II, and her nephew, who is currently serving in the Air Force as a pilot.
“I think of the many veterans who are West Hartford town staff, our Town Manager Matt Hart, our assistant superintendent Vicinus and so many others who are in leadership positions in our town,” she said. “Many of our leaders are veterans because of their dedication to public service, the commitment to a cause greater than themselves. That is true of the 173 veterans -–members of both parties – that ran for Congress in this past election.”
Cantor said she takes the time to listen to people who are serving or who have served.
“It is pretty common for us to say, as Mr. Vicinus said, ‘Thank you for your service,’” Cantor said. “What does that mean? I always wonder what is the appropriate answer back and how do we engage. It is meant respectfully, but it does seem woefully inadequate at times. We need to engage and listen.”
It’s a message Cantor has taken to heart.
Cantor said when she was on her way to Cape Cod with her husband, they stopped at a roadside stand where a veteran was selling apples.
“I started to talk to this veteran and he was telling me about his experience; he was so moved that I even asked,” Cantor said. “I ended up buying a lot of apples.”
Cantor learned that the son of a friend of hers left a successful job to join the Marines.
“Everyone wondered why, because he grew up in a fairly affluent family, why would he leave this comfortable life to serve,” Cantor said. “He said, ‘I need something bigger than myself.’”
Cantor told the Marine, who subsequently served in Afghanistan and since returned home, that she had a hard time forming the words to show gratitude to those who serve. The Marine told Cantor that he went willingly to serve. Often, his fellow Marines and their family members, particularly the children, don’t get to make that choice.
“They are all serving as well,” the Marine told Cantor. “Thank the families. Make sure you support and thank the families as well as the veterans.”
After Cantor spoke, Alden Woolfson and Max Mega from Boy Scout Troop 146 as well as Vicinus and Cantor placed the memorial wreath and Florence Lacey sang “God Bless America.”
Deacon James Hickey gave a benediction and the ceremony was concluded with Peter Roe, a U.S. Army veteran, playing “Taps.”
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