Despite temperatures in the low thirties, more than 200 Whitehall Village residents witnessed a simple but dramatic Veterans’ Day Ceremony in Riverside Veterans Memorial Park.
The cold temperatures, helped by an autumn chill off Lake Champlain, caused early attendees to stand around a burning barrel later used for “dignified disposal of unserviceable flags” by Veterans and Boy Scouts from Troop 83.
Veterans from American Legion Post 83 had wheeled the burning barrel across the street to Veterans Park around 10 a.m. As early at 10:30 a.m., more than 50 Whitehall residents, some veterans, some not, could be seen gathering in the park.
By the time the 11 a.m. ceremony began, the attendance count stood at more than 200 –– 200 gathered beneath the silver span of the Saunders Street Bridge, in front of the more than 200-foot-long Veterans’ Wall; 200 standing on the street side of the park, facing a podium placed before that Veterans’ Wall.
There, Legion First Sergeant and Master of Ceremonies James Lafayette opened the proceedings with a “Salute to the Colors,” followed by a singing of the National Anthem by four especially selected members of the high school select chorus.
The 200 attendees stood beneath about 15 trees that by now have lost almost half of their leaves. Legion Post 83 Chaplain Henry Gurney delivered the opening prayer. Looming above and behind him, the high peak known popularly as “the Mountain” stood all but stripped of leaves.
The ceremony recognized not only local veterans but all veterans, and the idea of service. According to a Congressional Research Report prepared for Congress in 2010, more than 1 million have died in our nation’s wars, from the Revolutionary War to the present. Nearly 1.5 million have been wounded in those wars, the report cites.
In his prayer, Gurney affirmed that such sacrifice had been made to “stamp out the evils of aggression, intolerance and greed,” thus “ennobling their life of sacrifice.”
Post Commander Anthony Huntington also stressed that everyone in Veterans’ Park had gathered there to “recognize service to our country.” But Huntington urged veterans (and perhaps civilians alike) to remember that “service does not end with military service.”
Ladies Auxiliary President Barbara Neddo emphasized the “repercussions of war,” while First Officer Charles Mannell stressed that, “If there is any glory in war, it is in self-sacrifice,” a virtue Mannell hoped that people in public service would honor.
“Let us give public honor where public honor is due…Let us honor those in public service who give,” Mannell said.
There were lighter moments in the ceremony. James Lafayette introduced Jerry Austin, Washington County American Legion Commander and former Whitehall native, as the main speaker.
“Jerry is a Whitehall guy,” Lafayette said. Then he quipped, “I’m a Whitehall guy who’s still here.”
As for Austin, his remarks centered on the insuperable difficulty of a veteran communicating to a non-Veteran the gut-level experience of military training and service, let alone combat.
Austin, for example, repeated a story he has told of a World War I Veteran that he knows. The aged Veteran looked at Austin and simply said, “There’s no way to explain to them what it is like over there, is there?” Austin admitted that there wasn’t, but left the encounter knowing that he and the World War I veteran, separated by nearly 50 years, shared a common bond, he said.
Standing in the crowd of many veterans, one veteran of recent war, during a momentary lull in the service, privately narrated some of his own gut-level experiences to an interested spectator.
The spectator said, “I can understand.” Immediately he took it back. “There’s no way I can understand.”
“That’s all right,” the Veteran said, “at least people now are trying to understand.”
The ceremony ended with the burning of mostly graveside military flags, (and some household flags), in the burning barrel. As more and more flags were burned, the large crowd of 200 slowly left Veterans Park, some to enjoy a hot lunch at nearby Legion Hall.
By now an overcast sky had increased the chill in Veterans’ Park. But blue sky held its own to the west and south of the village. That thin line of blue recalled a word said at least four times during the ceremony by various speakers. The word was “peace.”
Chaplain Gurney explicitly stated that hope in his opening prayer. Gurney said he looked forward to a day when people would live in a world where nations “resolve their differences through peaceful means.”
When the serious and respectful service in Veterans Park was quite over, three veterans remained burning the flags slowly, carefully… respectfully. Meanwhile, that thin line of blue seemed to be winning its own war against gray banks of clouds moving in from off the lake.