John Paradis: Why WWII memorial in DC means so much to veterans
NORTHAMPTON — Of all that has happened during the federal government shutdown, perhaps the thing that best symbolizes the failure of government was the image last week of World War II veterans ignoring the barricades at their national memorial in Washington, D.C.
As a retired service member, former federal employee and son of a World War II veteran, I found it a complete travesty that federal employees were put in the position of having to deny veterans access to the memorial built in their honor. And worse was that one national park ranger was rebuked by a member of Congress for doing her job.
But if any good has come out of the shutdown, it was the national attention raised for a generation of veterans who are facing their last chance to visit their memorial.
If there is any reason to put a stop to the shutdown, it’s this fact: A World War II veteran dies every 90 seconds in the United States, about 600 to 900 veterans every day. Of the nearly 1 million troops who served in World War II from the Bay State, or roughly 20 percent of the population during the war, fewer than 35,000 remain. They deserve better of our government than to see what’s happening in the capital they fought to protect.
Two weekends ago, nonprofit Honor Flight New England took 41 Massachusetts World War II veterans to Washington, D.C., to visit memorials to their sacrifices. The trip included a rousing send-off at Logan International Airport and a tribute dinner before heading home. Many of the veterans hadn’t flown since World War II.
For the veterans, the trip was an opportunity to reflect, to remember the sacrifices of their comrades and think back about brothers and sisters in arms who didn’t make it back. Most poignant for the veterans is the memorial’s Freedom Wall with 4,000 gold stars each representing 100 American deaths.
Honor Flight New England, the regional branch of the national Honor Flight Network, covers the transportation and food costs for the day trips for the veterans.
For 92-year-old Walter Pirog, a resident at the Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke, it was a trip of a lifetime and incredibly uplifting. The Chicopee native, who worked in manufacturing in Easthampton for more than 32 years, had served aboard a PT (patrol torpedo) boat during the war. “The trip will be something I’ll remember always — something to tell my kids about with all the details,” he said.
When the Veterans Council of Northampton raised funds to send Northampton veterans to Washington in 2011, many said the “Tribute Tour” experience, after wedding days and births of children, was their greatest experience.
To ensure as many veterans learn about the opportunity to go on an Honor Flight, the Soldiers’ Home has partnered with Holyoke Community College, Holyoke Visiting Nurse Association / Hospice Life Care and VFW Post 801 in Holyoke to present a 2012 documentary about the program.
The movie will be shown free to the public on the big screen at HCC’s Leslie Phillips Theater in the college’s Fine and Performing Arts Building Nov. 7 at 6:30 p.m. The 80-minute feature length film chronicles four living World War II veterans — and how a community came together to send them to Washington.
Having seen this moving documentary now three times, I can assure you every person in the theater will be wiping their eyes, including the toughest Marine. With our unsung World War II veterans now in their upper 80s and 90s, I realize many won’t be able to make the trip to the capital and live to see their tribute. The movie is therefore the next best thing, and the Holyoke premiere will be a special and profound moment.
The Holyoke premiere of the movie will also remind residents of our region that the price of freedom was paid by veterans and their families.
Politics and the polarizing national debate over the government shutdown do not have a place at America’s sacred national treasures, which, especially for veterans, often serve as a final reunion and a place of honor that represents their courage, heroism and unity.
This Dec. 7, 72 years will have passed since Pearl Harbor. On each succeeding day, our nation’s memories of that war grow dimmer. When we look to the past, we must remember those who bravely served during one of humankind’s darkest chapters. And let’s honor them with a flight, or, at least, a movie.
John Paradis, a retired U.S. Air Force lieutenant colonel, lives in Florence and writes a monthly column that appears on the second Friday. He is the communications director for the Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke.
Note: Honor Flight: The Movie will be shown free on Nov. 7 at Holyoke Community College. For planning purposes, the public is asked to reserve a seat by going to the movie’s official reservation web site at http://www.tugg.com/events/5101.