Veterans honored at ceremonies in Gloucester, Mathews

by Charlie Koenig - Posted on Nov 14, 2018 - 02:56 PM

Photo: Capt. Thomas Bernard (U.S. Coast Guard-ret.), who served as the program’s guest speaker; Dave Clements, past commander of Middle Peninsula Detachment #1317 of the Marine Corps League and detachment chaplain Rick Stanley, from left, salute the flag at the colors are retired by members of the Gloucester High School NJROTC. Photo by Charlie Koenig

Capt. Thomas Bernard (U.S. Coast Guard-ret.), who served as the program’s guest speaker; Dave Clements, past commander of Middle Peninsula Detachment #1317 of the Marine Corps League and detachment chaplain Rick Stanley, from left, salute the flag at the colors are retired by members of the Gloucester High School NJROTC. Photo by Charlie Koenig

Photo: Morey Alexander, American Legion Post 83 adjutant, at right, receives his Vietnam War pin from Commissioner Ellen Marie Hess of the Virginia Employment Commission during the program in Mathews. At left is VEC employee George T. Gagnon, who served in Vietnam in 1970-71. Photo by Charlie Koenig

Morey Alexander, American Legion Post 83 adjutant, at right, receives his Vietnam War pin from Commissioner Ellen Marie Hess of the Virginia Employment Commission during the program in Mathews. At left is VEC employee George T. Gagnon, who served in Vietnam in 1970-71. Photo by Charlie Koenig

Photo: Lt. Col. Jim Gierlak (U.S. Army-ret.), left, presents a certificate of appreciation to John Quarstein, the guest speaker at the service at St. Therese. Photo by Charlie Koenig

Lt. Col. Jim Gierlak (U.S. Army-ret.), left, presents a certificate of appreciation to John Quarstein, the guest speaker at the service at St. Therese. Photo by Charlie Koenig

Photo: Guest speaker Col. William Townsley (U.S. Air Force-ret.) spoke about his harrowing escape after crashing in a mission during the Vietnam War at Sunday’s DAV ceremony. Photo by Charlie Koenig

Guest speaker Col. William Townsley (U.S. Air Force-ret.) spoke about his harrowing escape after crashing in a mission during the Vietnam War at Sunday’s DAV ceremony. Photo by Charlie Koenig

From recollections of war stories to reflections on the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I to thoughts about the sacrifices that the men and women of America’s Armed Forces make when they sign their contracts, Veterans Day ceremonies on Sunday in Gloucester and Mathews were filled with respect and awe for those who wore the uniform.

Ceremonies were held at the Disabled American Veterans Chapter 58 headquarters, the St. Therese Roman Catholic Church and in front of the Veterans Memorial Wall, all in Gloucester and at American Legion Post 83 in Mathews.

During two of those ceremonies—the luncheon at DAV headquarters and the dinner at the Mathews Legion post—Commissioner Ellen Marie Hess of the Virginia Employment Commission presented pins, certificates and other material to the men and women who had served in the military during the Vietnam era.

DAV ceremony

Veterans Day observances began at 11 a.m. Sunday at DAV headquarters. It was explained that the observance was set to begin on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, in keeping with the official start of the Armistice that ended World War I some 100 years before.

About 100 people filled the DAV building as the ceremony was moved inside due to the chilly weather. The flags of each of the branches were presented at the podium, with the designated representatives marching outside to raise them on the flagpole.

Following the opening ceremonies, guest speaker Col. Bill Townsley (U.S. Air Force-ret.) began his talk. As a young second lieutenant stationed in Danang, Townsley (call sign “Blister”) flew an O-2A aircraft in missions in Laos over the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Vietnam.

On his seventh mission, he was accompanied in his plane by Maj. George Blair. After hitting some vehicles on the trail, Blair instructed Townsley to make another pass. It was then he felt a kind of a “whoomp” and soon the two men and the aircraft were plummeting to the ground.

Both men exited the craft. Blair had been struck in the head on his way out of the craft and came to just in time to pull his chute. Townsley pulled his chute earlier and luckily avoided the enemy fire on the way down. He went across a creek and “wrapped himself around a bush … like a rabbit. This was my spot.”

He would stay in that spot for some 22 hours, remaining perfectly quiet while enemy soldiers camped nearby, in spite of about “nine million ants … (that) just covered [his] body” and a rodent nipping at his hair. “And that’s why this is like it is,” he joked as he pointed to his balding head.

While Major Blair was evacuated the same day, the rescue choppers were unable to get to Townsley until the following morning. The afterburner of an F100 overhead let him know the rescue mission was on. Tear gas was sprayed on the area and Townsley eventually leapt onto the helicopter’s penetrator to escape.

His commander put him in for the Bronze Star for his actions, but headquarters upgraded that to a Silver Star, which he was awarded by the future Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff of the Air Force, Gen. George S. Brown. “A proud day,” he called it.

The Vietnam story was quite appropriate as members of the Virginia Employment Commission were in attendance to award Vietnam War Veteran lapel pins to the men and women who served in the military from Nov. 1, 1955 to May 15, 1975.

Hess explained that the Virginia Employment Commission became a partner in this 50th anniversary commemoration because a VEC employee, George T. Gagnon (who served in Vietnam in 1970-71), was looking to get his pin, but found that the only way he could receive it was through an official ceremony.

As a result, Hess said, her office went through the process to be named a commemorative partner.

Knights of Columbus

The 13th annual Veterans Brunch was held at Gloucester’s St. Therese. The event included ceremony, food, a well-known guest speaker, and prayers for America’s veterans. Over 100 men, women, and children participated.

Hosted by the Fr. McCarthy Council 9428, Knights of Columbus, the brunch began with opening ceremonies which included the presentation of colors by the Fr. Washington Assembly of the Knights of Columbus, Yorktown; recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance, led by Deputy Grand Knight Eric Anderson and his family; and singing the Star Spangled Banner, led by Navy veteran Tom Witty and his brother, Air Force veteran Mike Witty. 

This being the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I, a reading of “In Flanders Fields” by Army and Navy veteran Larry Espiritu was presented. That was followed by a traditional military blessing for the meal and veterans present by St. Therese’s pastor, the Rev. Jim Cowles. After the blessing, a cake-cutting ceremony was conducted. Using a Coast Guard sword, the first cut was made by husband-and-wife Coast Guard retirees Captain Tom Bernard and Command Master Chief Petty Officer Bonnie Bernard.

The meal (consisting of Army Spam and chipped beef on biscuits served from field ration marmite cans) was presented mess-hall style, with families moving through the chow line with plate and utensils in hand.

Guest speaker John V. Quarstein, director emeritus of the USS Monitor Center, an expert in Tidewater Virginia history and the author of 18 books, gave a talk on “Hampton Roads in World War I.” 

Following Quarstein’s talk, all present recited the “Prayer for Veterans.” Deacon Sandy Mattson of St. Therese, a retired Coast Guard Command Master Chief, gave the final benediction which came from the U.S. Marine Corps Devotional Field Book.

Decorations and food preparation were done by the Knights and Ladies of the Gloucester K of C Council 9428. Funding for this year’s event was donated by the Yorktown K of C Assembly 2184, the Gloucester Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 8252, the Gloucester Marine Corps League Detachment 1317, and the American Legion Riders, Post 75.

Marine Corps ceremony

A few hours later, Capt. Bernard was the guest speaker at the ceremony hosted by Middle Peninsula Detachment #1317 of the Marine Corps League in front of the Gloucester Veterans Memorial Wall at the courthouse.

Bernard reflected on the “one-sided” commitment that the men and women of the U.S. military make when they sign their contracts to serve.

This ceremony was dedicated to an area veteran who died earlier this year, Maj. Lyle Dean Drake of Kilmarnock. Marine Corps League past commandant David Clements said that his family struck up a friendship with the career Army soldier, who rose through the ranks from Private through Sergeant Major and eventually Major. He spent 21 of his 25 years as a member of the vaunted Green Berets. He died in August at the age of 75.

Clements and Commandant Mike Gilberti presented a certificate and flowers to Drake’s widow, Brigitte.

In his comments, Bernard reflected on a previous speech he was giving in Gloucester on Memorial Day. Before that service, he was approached by a young man who asked if he was still active duty. Bernard replied that he had retired and then asked the questioner if he was active duty.

That man, “almost apologetically” replied that he wasn’t active duty and that he was “only a veteran.” He hadn’t had time to talk with the young man, as the program soon began.

Had he been able to, he would have told him “There is no such thing as ‘just a veteran,’” Bernard said. “Never apologize for being ‘just a veteran.’”

When a man or woman signs up to join the military, Bernard said, they agree to serve a certain period of time, without exception. They cannot opt out or make any changes. The government, on the other hand, can modify the conditions, change the person’s assignment, ship the person anywhere they need them.

“Who would sign such a contract?” he asked. The answer is every man and woman who calls themselves a veteran, and some of those have signed more than once. The contract basically says that the military can “just tell them to do whatever they are told to do.”

He recalled one time when he wanted to be stationed in the Southeast, so that he could do marathon training (he won the 1985 Marine Corps Marathon). When he got his assignment, “it was in the Southeast … Southeast Alaska,” Bernard joked.

While Alaska turned out to be an adventure for Bernard and his family, he didn’t have any choice. “Acceptance of orders, once issued, is not negotiable,” he said.

The one guarantee the contract did offer, he said, was that it entitled you to “stand among the ranks of those who have served their country to be called a veteran. That is no small thing.”

The service concluded with a number of civic and military organizations placing their wreaths along the Gloucester County Veterans Wall, accompanied by members of the Gloucester High School NJROTC program, who also served as color bearers.

Mathews service

The Veterans Day observances concluded on Sunday evening with American Legion Post 83’s dinner and awards program. Coast Guard BMC Josh Menges and BMC Rob Shores, the officers in charge of Station Milford Haven, were the evening’s guest speakers. The two men described the services they provide, from search and rescue and law enforcement to maintaining the Aids to Navigation in the region’s waterways.

Menges also went on to discuss the sacrifices that the Coast Guard has made to the U.S. military. The Coast Guard, he said, has been involved in every major conflict since its inception in 1790. The Coast Guard suffered the nation’s largest naval loss in World War I when the Cutter Tampa sunk performing escort duty with all hands aboard, a loss of 111 Coast Guardsmen.

Sunday night’s program included the presentation of Continuous Membership Awards to the following Legionnaires:

5 years—Raymond Waymack. 10 years—Charles C. Brown, Raymond Fleischer, Kenneth W. Forstmann, Lester M. Gillenwater Jr., Frank Lohr III, Robert L. Petersen, Debra L. Shaefer, Everett P. Shaw, Donald D. Tellock, Roy B. Walker and George Weiss.

15 years—Richard Jones, John R. Morgan, Jim Ruliffson and Dennis Rundlett. 20 years—Philip J. Beshel, Thomas G. Mangrum Sr., Paul J. Reardon and David Vuich.

25 years—William A. Garringer, Raymond N. Mountford and Janella I. Williams. 30 years—John Dixon and Gordon Riley. 35 years—William Godsey Jr. 40 years—John A. Gordon. 45 years—Allen S. Moughon and C.E. Ripley. 50 years—John L. Cannon and Robert W. West.