Dozens attend Memorial Day ceremony in Westfield

Westfield City Council members stand for the Invocation during the annual Memorial Day observance at Parker Memorial Park May 31, 2021. (DON WIELGUS PHOTO)

WESTFIELD- Dozens of people gathered at Parker Memorial Park May 31 to view Westfield’s annual Memorial Day Ceremony, the first major public gathering since most COVID-19 restrictions were lifted May 29. 

The speakers in this year’s ceremony made a point to recognize Westfield’s veterans who passed away due to COVID-19 over the past 14 months, including 117 veterans from Westfield. 

In the Channel 15 broadcast of the ceremony, the names of those veterans were displayed while American Legion Post 124 Chaplain Richard Olemka read a prayer. 

One of the speakers, Fred Benda Jr., a professional bagpiper, talked about the history of bagpipes in war. He said that on June 6, 2020, he and a Scottish bagpiper named John Millen played  “Highland Laddie” and “Road to the Isles” at the same time, but in their respective hometowns due to the pandemic, to recognize the 76th anniversary of the Allies’ D-Day invasion of France on June 6, 1944. 

Both Benda’s and Millen’s fathers were part of the allied invasion force on D-Day, which is considered to be the day World War II largely turned in the Allies’ favor. 

Benda then played both songs on the bagpipes during the ceremony, and concluded the ceremony by playing “The Bloody Fields of Flanders.”

Benda was followed by Mayor Donald F. Humason Jr., who acknowledged the number of people in attendance after a year in which such gatherings have been sparse. 

“It’s good to see so many people here, and to welcome you back after a terrible, terrible year,” said Humason, “But now, you’re back.”

Following Humason was State Sen. John C. Velis, a I.S. Army Reserve major who has served in Afghanistan. 

Velis talked about an incident in Afghanistan on April 6, 2013, in which three of his friends and fellow soldiers were killed by a suicide bomber. He only gave their last names: Ward, Robles, and Santos. 

“It dawned on me, as time went by, their memory, the amount of time I spent thinking about them, wasn’t as much. And that made me sad. In fact, it made me angry,” said Velis.

He said he was thinking about what he would talk about during his speech when he went to the Facebook pages of their family members. 

“That pain that had minimized and decreased for me was as strong today [for them] eight years later as it was the day they got that knock on their door,” said Velis, “That was very powerful for me. A strong message. We go about our days. We move on. We honor the fallen. But for some people, today is a day they struggle to get through.”

He then talked about a mural that is in place in an airfield in Bagram, Afghanistan that is only visible to soldiers who are on their way to leave the country at the end of their tours. The mural says, according to Velis, “Honor the fallen, and live a life worthy of their sacrifice.”

“When you go upstairs and see that mural, everybody pauses and stops. You can almost see that hitting them at once. It’s the realization that we are going home, but many are not.”

State Rep. Kelly W. Pease said that grief and joy are able to be experienced at the same time when one remembers a loved one that they have lost. 

“As the wave of grief crests and rolls through, let’s also celebrate the time we have with family and friends this holiday weekend. Because those who have fought and are fighting today are fighting for those freedoms and it gives them pleasure to watch us celebrate them,” said Pease.

The Memorial Day Ceremony was concluded with the laying of a wreath on the monument in the center of the park. Members of Post 124 then conducted a 21-gun salute, which was followed by the playing of “Taps.”

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