U.S. Air Force Staff Sergeant Jemille Charlton was joined by his son Amaree during the 2013 Sag Harbor Memorial Day parade on Monday. Michael Heller photo
By Victoria Faconti
It was with a sense of reverence and pride Monday morning that a crowd adorned in a sea of red, white and blue fell silent as Sag Harbor’s Memorial Day ceremony began with the firing of arms at Marine Park following the annual parade down Main and Bay streets.
Five students from Pierson Middle/High School chorus followed the moment with their rendition of the National Anthem as the Sag Harbor Community Band — acknowledged Monday for its 56 years of community service — listened on. Mummers from children and chattering of adults stopped as American Legion members recalled those Sag Harbor natives who died in the ultimate sacrifice of service to their country.
Approaching the podium, Coast Guard Commander Paul Gerecke paused, and admired the crowd of veterans and community members for a few seconds before speaking. Commander Gerecke, who has served in the United States Coast Guard for over 30 years and plans to retire this summer in Sag Harbor, was one of the first military responders at Ground Zero on September 11, 2001.
The branch chief at the Coast Guard Forces readiness command in Norfolk, Virginia, Commander Gerecke spoke about the importance of wearing a military uniform, and the special bond that unites all servicemen and women. He recalled once being presented with a plaque which showed an analogy between joining the military and writing a check to the United States of America — a blank check that could have an amount as great as the life of that serviceman or woman.
“Everyone who puts on the uniform writes that check, and we never know until the end of our time in uniform how much that check is going to be cashed for,” Commander Gerecke said. “Many of us are lucky it only amounts to a certain length of time, for others it adds wounds to varying degrees and for others sadly it is full the amount.”
And it is for those servicemen and women that communities around the country gather each Memorial Day in honor.
Commander Gerecke recalled a recent incident at an airport where a young boy and his father approached him while Commander Gerecke was in full military uniform. The father and son thanked him for his service. After explaining what his job entails, Commander Gerecke asked the young boy if he would like to join the U.S. Coast Guard when he grows up.
“The father said ‘oh no, I have nothing but respect for you people but I wouldn’t let my son go in,’” said Commander Gerecke.
That phrase, he noted, stuck with him — in particular that the man used the words “you people.” Commander Gerecke said the phrase is evidence of an American mindset that military servicemen and women are expected to be there to protect the country and its freedom. Meanwhile, it is a gift to be grateful for, he said, with many military personnel giving their lives for this country and its people.
Paraphrasing a quote from the late former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, Commander Gerecke noted, “The trouble with expecting someone else to do it is that eventually you run out of someone else.”
In a country with so much abundance, Commander Gerecke noted just one percent of the United States population serves in the military. He applauded those from the community and from around the country who have taken the opportunity to fight for the United States, with many losing that battle. Since 2008, three members of the Sag Harbor community have lost their lives while fighting in combat.
In February 2008, Spc. Orlando Antonio Perez was killed while serving in Baghdad. While Perez lived primarily in Texas, he also lived in Sag Harbor with his mother. In April 2008, Sag Harbor native Marine Lance Corporal Jordan C. Haerter was killed in action in Ramadi, Iraq at the age of 19 in an act of valor that saved the lives of over 50 U.S. and Iraqi military personnel. His death was followed two years later by that of 1st Lieutenant Joseph Theinert, 24, a resident of Shelter Island and Sag Harbor who was killed in action by an IED (improvised explosive device) in Kandahar, Afghanistan after securing the safety of the remainder of his platoon as they were undergoing hostile fire from rocket propelled grenades.
“They went, they served, and they gave everything they had,” said Commander Gerecke who asked that everyone present thank someone on Memorial Day, to give back to the community somehow, someway.
“I challenge each and everyone of you, today on this day when we set aside the beach chairs and the grillers for a few hours, to give thanks to those who didn’t get a chance to come home and march in this parade,” said Commander Gerecke.
Marine Sgt. William C. Stacey, 23, of Washington State was also recognized during the ceremony. Sgt. Stacey was on his fifth deployment when he was killed in January 2012 after an IED went off during his last tour duty in Afghanistan. A letter he wrote to his family gained national attention following his death. In that letter, he spoke about how his service — and life — was taken for greater meaning.
“Perhaps I didn’t change the world,” Sgt. Stacey wrote in his letter, “But there will be a child who will live because the men left the security that they enjoyed in their home country to come to his.”