Norman Bender: Remember and pay homage to veterans
On the second Thursday of every month there is in our vicinity a gem of an organization within a gem of a place. The place is the Knights of St. Patrick on State Street in New Haven, a traditional treasure, which has long been noted for its members’ cultural and community outreach. Their graciousness to the VFW Post 15120 is a case in point. And just as our armed forces are the magnificent mosaic that is America, so are the individual members of the post.
At my first meeting I was greeted by the vivacious and enthusiastic Allahna Torres.
Torres was born in Hartford and went to Sports Science Academy High School and subsequently enlisted in the U.S. Army. She served in Iraq, from 2009-2010 as a member of the military police. What she remembers most is the camaraderie with her peers. She feels she made it through because of the way they supported each other.
Charles Pickett, the spirit of our post, was sitting post commander when I first joined the VFW of New Haven. Born in Middletown, he went to Xavier and UConn and got into publishing and printing, and then at age 39 enlisted in the army. He wound up as a bridge engineer in central Iraq, just west of Baghdad. His tours included nine months in Iraq and a year in southern Afghanistan. He has the logically indelible memory of the time that an authorized Afghan national got inside the perimeter, and fortunately loss of life was averted. But, as every veteran learns, you never know. He is now a high school English teacher continuing his love of language and the written word. He continuously and correctly points out that everyone there is young at heart, because this is a new era of the VFW, we do have fun, and all who are eligible should join.
Our current commander is Roger Clark.
Clark was brought up in Bethany and went to Amity Regional High School. His army reserve unit was called up and he completed two tours, one in Kosovo in 2000 and one in the Kurdish area in Iraq in 2003, working out of the Civic Affairs office. He recalls the appreciation and gratitude of the everyday folks and refuses to be called a hero because “it is not about us, it is about the people we protected”.
Eric Aviles is a New Haven man who went to Wilbur Cross High School and enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1991. One of his stations was in Cuba from 2001-03, and he found it a particularly dark place. From 1999-01 he was involved in the humanitarian mission in Guatemala. He was struck by the big hearts and love for our country expressed by the locals, and he says nothing better describes why he did what he did. And nothing better describes us than Eric.
Lt. Col. Robert Matheson, my late father-in-law, would have been 91 by this Veterans Day. He was drafted in 1942 and assigned to General Patton’s 3rd army destined for the December 1944 Battle of Bastogne. His recollections are indelible, more of senses and emotions than of detail.
It was a winter of extreme cold and his starkest memory of battle was the point where German and American columns got mixed in with each other. His 4th Armored Division at many junctures had no idea whether they were amidst friend or foe, and if the greatest fear is unknown, imagine that particularly terrifying (my word, not his) condition with the backdrop of battle to boot.
It would seem no event could have matched that for emotional impact, but there were others. He helped liberate Ohrdruf, the first Nazi death camp, a camp Patton wanted all the men to see, and the one at which he himself became ill while viewing the horrors of piles of human bodies. He worried that when those of the “greatest generation” are gone, some will forget or worse, attempt to deny the Holocaust. He was convinced at least that many will try.
So when folks say “remember the veterans,” I believe the best way to truly remember what they fought for, freedom of life and expression, is never to forget and tolerate what they fought against. And that is slavery, genocide and dictatorships, and their accompanying flags and symbols. No greater homage could be paid.