A Day of Remembrance in Gilroy

From left, Gilroy Fire Captain Roy Shackel, Gilroy Fire Medic

At 4:40 p.m. Sunday in Christmas Hill Park, a light breeze rustled a lone flag at half-mast as 400 people standing in the amphitheater bowed their heads for a moment of silence. Full story
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At 4:40 p.m. Sunday in Christmas Hill Park, a light breeze rustled a lone flag at half-mast as 400 people standing in the amphitheater bowed their heads for a moment of silence.
Extracting an adage from the “Gettysburg Address,” Gilroy Fire Department Chief Dale Foster quoted Abraham Lincoln: “there is no way we can dedicate, consecrate or hallow any ground where our heroes lie.”
Their actions honor our nation, he said, and are “far above our ability to express or describe our gratitude and respect.”
A sense of unity encapsulated the tone of Gilroy’s Day of Remembrance for the 10th anniversary of Sept. 11, 2001. During the hour-long memorial on Sunday, 400 civilians, servicemen and servicewomen, police officers and fire department members gathered to honor nearly 3,000 individuals who perished in the terrorist attacks that wreaked havoc in New York, at the Pentagon and in Pennsylvania.
For locals, Sunday’s event paid homage not only to the victims of 9/11, but dually illuminated the ongoing sacrifices of military, police, fire and search and rescue agencies.
“Firefighters and police don’t decide to flip a coin and decide who goes. When the call comes, you go,” said guest speaker Chaplain Jim Uhey, a national disaster relief specialist from Aptos. “It’s one of those things people choose to do, and we need to honor them and thank them on a regular basis.”
Standing at attention for the duration of the ceremony, Patriot Guard Rider Chris Bruner gripped an American flag as she observed from her post in the far right-hand corner of the half-full amphitheater. Her husband, Cliff Bruner, stood opposite in the left corner. The couple brought with them 30 American flags, which they set up earlier that day along the railing of the amphitheater’s tiered seats. The formation created a semicircle of stars and stripes that surrounded the audience.
The Bruners belong to the Patriot Guard Riders, a nationwide group of motorcyclists purposed toward supporting the armed forces. Their main mission is to attend the funeral services of fallen American heroes as invited guests of the family, in addition to shielding the mourners from interruptions created by protesters.
“It’s an honor for us to be able to do this,” said Chris, stopping mid-dialogue to wrap a complete stranger in uniform in a warmhearted bear hug – Private First Class Katie Rogers.
“This is part of me,” said Chris, motioning to Rogers with an outstretched hand. “Anytime I see a service person, I give them a hug.”
Organized by the city and Malcolm MacPhail, city chaplain and pastor of New Hope Community Church, Gilroy’s Day of Remembrance was an understated manifestation of community oneness. The amphitheater was ablaze with red, white and blue; supporters channeling the spirit of Old Glory with bedazzled sequined baseball caps, toenails painted red, star spangled earrings, American flag shorts or denim vests embroidered with bald eagles and pinned with patriotic flair.
Most spectators clutched a small American flag, an item passed out prior to the ceremony by Mayor Al Pinheiro and Councilman Dion Bracco.
“To me, that’s the focal point,” said Pinheiro, leaning over to hand a flag to a young attendee. “Getting our young people to understand.”
Other state/city officials in attendance included Assemblyman Luis Alejo, Mayor Al Pinheiro, Councilmen Perry Woodward and Bob Dillon, City Administrator Tom Haglund and California Highway Patrol Interim Commander Dave Hill were among attendees.
When guest musician Gilroyan Tony Quinn strummed an original number called “Liberty” on his guitar, audience members followed suit of one another – raising their flags in the air for the length of the song.
Youthful musicians from the South Valley Suzuki String Academy also took to the stage with Director Lori Franke. Their performance of “Let There Be Peace On Earth” prompted audience members to participate in the chorus, singing, “Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me.”
Toward the end of the ceremony, a gust of wind knocked over two of four large posters bearing the 2,977 names of 9/11 victims. Three members from the Gilroy Fire Department – who had been sitting in the front row alongside their fellow firefighters and officers from the Gilroy Police Department – sprang from their seats to rearrange the display. The men stood behind the posters for the duration of the presentation, ensuring the list of names would not hit the ground again.
This small motion was, in a way, symbolic of an intangible common denominator that shined Sunday afternoon. From the 10 Christopher High School varsity football players who turned out in their white and turquoise jerseys to “show the Gilroy pride,” as senior Herman Enriquez, 17, put it; to Ken Mitchell – a navy veteran of 10 years formerly stationed at Moffett Field in San Francisco: A sense of national pride pervaded the atmosphere.
Mitchell wore a T-shirt with the iconic 9/11 photo of three firefighters erecting a flag at Ground Zero, an article of clothing he purchased in December 2001.
“Sometimes I think Americans can get complacent, and feel like nothing can happen,” remarked Mitchell’s wife, Sue, who recalls on a dime the utter shock and disbelief she encountered while watching at work the Twin Towers burn on TV.
She added, “it’s beautiful,” of that afternoon’s ceremony. “I hope they do this every year.”
While smaller ceremonies commemorating 9/11 have been held at the flagpole in front of the Gilroy Police Station on 7301 Hanna St., MacPhail is exploring the concept of bulking up the ceremony every five years. He is also considering moving the yearly morning ceremony to the evening, he said.
In the spirit of “gone but not forgotten,” several attendees – on unrelated occasions – reminisced the loss of Jeramy Ailes and David Gutierrez, two Gilroyans who died in combat while serving their country. On Nov. 15, 2004, U.S. Marine Lance Cpl. Jeramy Ailes died in Iraq, and was the first Gilroyan to die in battle since the Vietnam War. Staff Sgt. David H. Gutierrez died Christmas Day 2009, when he was struck by a roadside bomb while patrolling in Afghanistan.
“We believe they’re all our sons and daughters, because they’re serving our country,” said Dottie Stewart, 58, who has lived in Gilroy with husband Mark Stewart for 28 years.
Pinned to her blouse was a button with a picture of Ailes, whom Dottie would buy coffee from when Ailes worked at Starbucks on First Street years ago.
“It’s so important we never forget and continue to honor our fallen heroes,” said Dottie, her sparkly USA earrings catching the light as she talked.
Standing beside her, Dottie’s husband Mark Stewart – whose father served as a paratrooper pathfinder for the Marine Corps during WWII – added, “such prices paid, for what we have.”
Uhey underlined this point during his address delivered earlier that day, recalling a visit to Ground Zero he made shortly after the attacks. This is where he witnessed the uncovering of a victim’s body from the rubble, a somber moment where rescue workers formed a human corridor to remove the remains from the excavation site.
Anytime you see an emergency medical services worker or an individual in the Armed Forces, said Uhey exampling the numerous agencies of men and women who risk their safety to serve others, “take that moment and thank them for that sacrifice.”
When GFD Chief Dale Foster and GPD Chief Denise Turner approached the podium, both touched on the evolution of law enforcement’s infrastructure following 9/11. The two highlighted improvements to technology, communication practices and protocol for disaster prevention and response.
“I know many of you think terrorism is a million miles away from Gilroy,” said Turner. “But it can happen at anytime.”
She hammered upon the nationally promoted motto: “If you see something, say something.”
Both Turner and Uhey made light-hearted jests at the protocol now imposed by the Transportation Security Administration, an agency established post-9/11 by the federal government “which I’m sure you’re all familiar with,” Turner said while smiling.
These days, “you’re practically stripping down to your underwear to get on an airplane,” chuckled Uhey. “We have a new normal now.”
As the brief, but poignant, ceremony came to a close, members of the GPD fired a volley of rounds into the sky and two members of the Los Gatos-Monte Sereno Police Pipes and Drums played “Amazing Grace” on the bagpipes. GUSD band instructor Tom Brozene then rose from his seat in the audience, executing a sweetly solemn rendition of “Taps.” This was followed by the retiring of colors, Tony Quinn’s song and a benediction delivered by MacPhail.
Prior to this, Uhey identified in his address tragedies touching spans of generations: Pearl Harbor … the Vietnam War … 9/11.
We cannot forget what happened during those times, he said, or “allow these events to just go by the wayside.”