By Francesca Normile
Monday dawned blue and clear in Sag Harbor, and by 9 a.m. as the annual Sag Harbor Memorial Day Parade stepped off from the World War I monument at Otter Pond, the route was lined with spectators waiting to pay tribute to veterans taking part as well as those who didn’t live to see the day.
As the parade made its way down Main Street accompanied by music courtesy of the Sag Harbor Community Band, veterans from several wars, including aging World War II veterans, waved to friends and neighbors as they rode or walked the route. The contingent made stops at all the village’s war memorials as well as the Municipal Building and at the Lance Cpl. Jordan Haerter Veteran’s Memorial Bridge where a military color guard laid wreaths and offered a 21 gun salute to fallen warriors. The final stop was the American Legion Building on Bay Street where the remembrance ceremony took place.
The ceremony included around an hour’s worth of events and speeches. Two wreaths were dropped into the bay to honor the veterans “who never made it home and whose final resting place is the sea.”
The legion’s chaplain, Bill Schildknecht, called upon the audience to, “Honor our veterans who made the supreme sacrifice, so we could experience freedom in a land that is free.”
Two awards, a certificate of appreciation, given by Sag Harbor Mayor Brian Gilbride, and the Commander Award, given by incoming post commander Martin Knab, were presented to Sag Harbor VFW Chelberg & Battle Post 388 commander Ralph Ficorelli. Ficorelli received his awards by saying, “it’s been an honor to serve my country and my community.”
About a half hour into the ceremony, Vietnam veteran Bruce Winchell took the podium as the day’s guest speaker. Winchell, who was introduced with mentions of his numerous medals and citations, including the Purple Heart, opened with a demand on the “collective American consciousness” to “recall the lives of our fellow countrymen given for our freedom.”
Winchell then recounted the casualties of Sag Harbor citizens in war — from 33 in the Civil War to one in the War in Iraq, referring to Sag Harbor’s Lance Cpl. Jordan Haerter of the 1st Battalion 9th Marine Regiment, who died in 2008, one month into his first tour of duty in Iraq and for whom the bridge to North Haven is named.
“All these Sag Harbor people have one common thread,” Winchell continued, raising his voice to add, “Duty, Honor, Country.”
Winchell shared with the crowd his memories of the climate of the 1960s in the United States and talked of how it felt to return from Vietnam to this country where citizens ignored his deeds and efforts in the war. He also spoke of the way in which the anger and anti-war sentiment of the era was misdirected toward Vietnam veterans like Winchell and his comrades. This, he notes, after they returned from what had, in many cases, been years spent serving the country and risking their lives for the efforts of the United States military.
Winchell also spoke of the bravery of those who fought along side him and acknowledged the pain of returning to a country that did not recognize the sacrifices made by him and his comrades.
In closing, he said “I feel it is my obligation to honor those who cannot defend themselves. Today my band of brothers stand behind me and we salute all veterans, of all wars, every year. Thank you.”
Winchell’s first-hand experience in Vietnam helped to illuminate the importance of what Harry “Hap” Wils, Commander of the Sag Harbor VFW and Vietnam-era veteran, said prior to Winchell’s turn at the podium. Wils, drawing upon the current state of the country in terms of the disparate positions and opinions held in regards to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, addressed his audience with insightful brevity.
“No matter how you feel about the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, don’t let it change how you feel about the men and women fighting there,” said Wils. “They are the heroes of our country.”
As a veteran of an unpopular war that ended 35 years ago, Wils’ recognition of the divergent personal feelings held about war was a moving reminder by a former soldier that politics should not overshadow the importance of honoring the bravery of this country’s fighting men and women.