Remembering the fallen, honoring the living

Veterans of the Foreign Wars Post 6309 and American Legion Post

Left, right, left, right, left in careful, synchronized steps.
Veterans of the Foreign Wars Post 6309 presented its colors,
heralding the start of ceremonies in honor of Veterans Day with the
American flag fluttering overhead.
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Left, right, left, right, left in careful, synchronized steps.

Veterans of the Foreign Wars Post 6309 presented its colors, heralding the start of ceremonies in honor of Veterans Day with the American flag fluttering overhead.

A pair of small Cub Scouts led children, parents and veterans in the Pledge of Allegiance on the lawn of the Veterans Memorial Building on 74 West 6th St. in Gilroy. The event was hosted by the American Legion of Gilroy, Post 217.

Father Edward Fitz-Henry from San Juan Bautista Mission laced his invocation with poetic thought, citing a passage from one of J.R.R. Tolkien’s works.

He also read an early 19th century poem, “In Flanders Fields” by Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae – a Canadian physician who wrote the piece after witnessing the death of a 22-year-old friend.

“We are the dead,” read Fitz-Henry from the podium. “Short days ago we lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow, loved and were loved, and now we lie in Flanders fields.”

Fitz-Henry said he felt the poem was appropriate, in light of remembering those who have died and are buried in foreign fields.

A small group of band members from Gilroy High School took up shortly after, playing the national anthem. The Side by Siders, a senior women’s chorus group, were also on hand to sing spirited numbers such as “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” and “God Bless America.”

Joe Kline, public information officer for the City of Gilroy, was the event’s guest speaker. A veteran of the 101st Airborne Division nicknamed the “King’s Men,” Kline spent 13 months in Vietnam as a door gunner, hanging off the side of helicopters manned by four-man crews.

“Sometimes you took off thinking, ‘Why did I volunteer for this?’ ” said Kline.

Kline encouraged veterans to get involved in reunion associations and to accept invitations to places such as school assemblies and classrooms. He implored the importance of sharing personal experiences, and keeping their stories alive by resurrecting shelved memories.

“We have to make sure (younger people) understand the sacrifices that we made,” said Kline. “We can’t expect young people to pick this up by osmosis.”

Kline divulged a remarkable story about Joint Pow/MIA Accounting Command, an organization that scours the globe for the lost remains of fallen soldiers whose bodies were never recovered. The organization’s personnel scour jungles, climb mountains and rappel off sides of cliffs in their missions to recover Americans missing from the Vietnam War, Korean War and World War II.

Kline said JPAC performed a successful archeological dig at a crash site in the jungles of Southern Laos, where several of his comrades went missing on March 20, 1971.

Though unearthed remains totaled barely enough to fill a small film canister, Kline said JPAC workers were able to assign identities to the recovered material and ship it to the Arlington National Cemetery for burial in 2006.

Of the four soldiers, Kline said, there was just one surviving family member – but almost 30 people attended the service.

“I was amazed people traveled all the way to Arlington to pay respects,” he told the audience.

Kline, now a prolific painter of aviation scenes, translates vivid memory from mind to canvas. In a way, he says, it’s how he revisits and confronts all that he’s experienced.

The paintings were on display inside the Veterans Memorial Building.

As Kline’s story came to an end, the honor guard fell into formation and performed a 21-gun salute. Shots echoed through the air, and smaller children broke away from their parents to snatch up empty shell cases while “Taps” played in the background. John Ceballos, master of ceremonies for the event, took to the podium for closing words.

Ceballos, also a veteran, appeared to be tearing up – as he would later good-humoredly deny – while offering final words.

At 19 years old, Ceballos said he rationed it was better to join, than to be drafted. So he enlisted in the Navy. In 1966-67 he was stationed in Vietnam.

He spoke with solemnity of the camaraderie that formed between soldiers, saying memories that frequently resurface – especially on Veterans Day – are painful.

“Even now I see their faces,” said Ceballos, 64. “Some I never knew if they came back or not.”

Ceballos recaptured the culture shock he encountered, and outlined the stark contrast between living in America versus a country where he couldn’t get out of bed in the morning without clutching a rifle.

“Its hard to come across to civilians that have never been there” said Ceballos. “We know they don’t fully understand how we feel on the inside.”

It was evident emotions were running high for the veteran, who paused a moment before concluding the ceremony.

Ceballos looked up from the podium, and asked the crowd to never forget.

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