Afghanistan veteran and longtime Walpole resident Thomas Stewart discusses the attributes of a Veteran.
By James Kinneen
Hometown Weekly Reporter
Some towns have tried to host Veterans Day events virtually, some towns have just hung banners and signs in their squares and commons, and some towns have opted not to do anything because of COVID-19 and the social distancing rules that have come from the pandemic. But with Walpole having such a storied tradition of military service, it was clear the Walpole Veterans Committee wasn’t going to let the holiday pass by without holding some kind of ceremony.
While holding the event in the town center would have been difficult - people would have tried to join in or watch, and organizers would have to shoo onlookers away or try to rope the ceremony off from them - there were thoughts of having a larger event on the high school football field. But with the organizers unsure if the COVID numbers would move the town into the red and lead to the event being cancelled entirely, they opted to compromise and hold a smaller, filmed ceremony behind the Walpole Co-Operative Bank South Street Center.
As a result, “Taps” was played as a recording, rather than live. While there were Boy Scouts present, the number was cut to only three troop members, and most devastatingly, as Donna Summer explained, “the socialness of it was lost,” in large part due to not being able to hold a barbecue at the VFW.
While it might not be the ideal situation, it was still an opportunity to honor the town’s veterans. Rita Mienscow declared it best at the onset of the ceremony: "Once again we find ourselves on opposing sides of the screen. This is not what we planned for, and this is certainly not what we’d hoped for. After thoughtful consideration to the recent increase in COVID cases, consideration of the governor’s recommendations, and in discussion with the Walpole Board of Health, it was agreed that the health and safety of our residents is the priority. We all very much look forward to the day when we can gather on our common with our friends and neighbors as we always have and always should. Until that time comes, as we said on Memorial Day, we will not let this pandemic stop us from honoring our veterans.”
After Jennifer Healy of the Junior Women’s Club of Walpole noted the club can’t hold its typical beer and wine tasting (and instead is having a calendar raffle this year), David Ferrara gave the invocation, Troop 44 read the Pledge of Allegiance, and the day’s honorary guest speaker got up to give a speech. The speaker: Thomas Stewart, an Afghanistan veteran who had recently retired from military service after 31 years.
Stewart first noted Walpole’s history of military service, starting with the 157 Walpole residents who fought in the Battle of Lexington and Concord, at a time when the town’s population numbered only 800. He also noted names like Vietnam War PFC Brian Collins, 2nd lieutenant Paul Fitzgibbons, PFC Richard “Charlie” Drake, all Walpole residents who died in Vietnam, and 1st lieutenant Andrew Bacevich, who died in Operation Iraqi Freedom.
“Remember these veterans when you have to decide whether to say the Pledge of Allegiance or stand for the passing of the American flag,” he declared. “America is a great nation, and Walpole is a great community full of service and sacrifices from everyone.”
Much of Stewart’s speech revolved around the idea of what constitutes a veteran, and what a veteran looks like. Stewart told the story of going to the Boston Pops concert and meeting the young woman in charge of the artillery unit that was helping the musicians. She was 23 years old, five feet tall, a graduate of Boston University, and was in charge of leading “a platoon of about 45 field artillery soldiers whose job it is to put indirect fire on top of the enemy - or in the case of that evening, to provide a 13-gun salute ceremoniously to the '1812 Overture' played by the Boston pops. She was extremely brilliant, well-spoken and a positive role model for all men and women. She is a veteran.”
Stewart noted the traits that encompass a veteran and provided an example of how the military instills that virtue in a young person. From resilience, as exemplified by having to make your way from an airport in Atlanta to Fort Benning, Georgia with virtually no direction; to agility, as exemplified by not needing pure predictability; and most importantly, “the value deeply engrained in all veterans is selfless service. Veterans serve the greater good even if it means their own personal interests have to take a backseat or not be considered at all.”
But it was perhaps his example of a veteran’s ability to remain calm under pressure that former Walpole readers will find most interesting. While in Afghanistan, Stewart was in Kabul and his base came under attack when his operations captain told him: “Bad news, sir. The base is under attack and they’re all wearing Walpole Rebels sweatshirts and knit hats.”
Apparently, two weeks before the chaotic event, they’d done a humanitarian mission in the same tribal village, and distributed winter boots for the kids, as well as Walpole High sweatshirts and hats to the same people.
After the reading of the names of veterans who had died since Memorial Day, Donna Summer stepped up to the podium and put up a sign with the Veterans Crisis Line phone number on it (1-800-273-8755; press 1), for the camera to see.
“Veterans Day, for myself, is a very proud day, but also a sad day,” she explained. She noted that she joined the army out of high school; her older son, Derek, retired from army and is a veteran of Afghanistan and Iraq; her youngest son retired from the Air Force with three tours overseas; and her daughter was a Gulf War-era veteran who she lost to suicide three years ago - she would have been 44 this year.
“This is why, today, I’d like to speak about suicide in the military amongst our veterans,” she explained. “This year since the coronavirus, military suicides are up 20 percent. Also, incidents of violent behavior have spiked as service members struggle under COVID-19, war-zone deployments, natural disasters and civil unrest. The suicide rate for veterans is 1.5 times higher than the general population. Female veterans is 2.5 times higher than for regular adult women. Every one of us need to be aware of those around us - the elderly, the ill neighbor next door, those alone especially - make a phone call, go next door, be aware of the people around you and what is happening. I did want to mention that the veterans in Holyoke are still suffering. We will get through this, windy day or not, because Veterans Day must be told.”
While she wanted to thank Kerri McManama and the senior center staff for allowing them to use the facility, as well as decontaminating it after their use, Summer's main concern was that people, especially veterans, check on each other during this trying time.
“It’s very worrying that with this pandemic and the problems that are going on, and the isolation, that some of our veterans might fall through the cracks. My daughter was not found for two days, and if somebody maybe had said something, she could’ve gotten help. So please, check on your neighbors and your fellow veterans.”
It goes without saying that the country should be doing more to help its veterans. But while many towns have eschewed Veterans Day celebrations because of the coronavirus, Walpole worked hard to make sure they were at least acknowledged with a ceremony - even if it wasn’t the ceremony everyone was hoping for.