AMHERST — With sobering statistics about the large number of veterans who take their own lives or become homeless upon their return from active duty, Amherst Veterans Agent Steven Connor used Tuesday’s ceremony to ask those gathered on the North Common to go beyond thanking veterans by engaging them in conversations and genuine hospitality.
"Make them feel a part of your community because they were in a foreign land feeling very isolated,” Connor said.
While events to recognize veterans and thank them for the sacrifices they made are the heart of Veterans Day commemorations, Connor suggested people do more than that to honor the country’s veterans, many of whom are suffering.
Standing on the common in front of Town Hall with about 50 people looking on, Connor said there are so many challenges facing veterans that an average of 22 veterans commit suicide every day, while numerous veterans suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, and many live on the streets. Up to half the homeless population is believed to be people who once served in the military, Connor noted.
Efforts in western Massachusetts to end homelessness among veterans, have led to more than 140 veterans securing housing and shelter, he said.
"We’re proud of the work we do and we’re going to continue doing it,” Connor said.
Nathaniel Dunnican, a University of Massachusetts student who served as a staff sergeant in the U.S. Air Force from 2003 to 2006 and participated in both Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operating Enduring Freedom, emphasized the importance of relationships among veterans.
"For our community to survive, we must take care of each other and ourselves,” Dunnican said.
Dunnican said he is working to create a solidarity at UMass. "We know how it feels to lose our best friend, to kiss our daughter and tell her we’ll not be back for her birthday,” Dunnican said.
On campus, the work to assist veterans includes the Student Veterans Resource Center and the first ever virtual career fair for veterans being held this week.
Town Manager John Musante praised the veterans for their service. "To all who have served in our military, you are truly American heroes,” Musante said.
The town has stepped up to assist veterans, too, with a tax-work off program that has slots for veterans, he said.
Select Board Chairman Aaron Hayden recalled generations of men and women who have protected liberty. "This freedom binds us to those of us who have not fought to those who have,” Hayden said.
The ceremony began with the Pledge of Allegiance and, following speakers and the recitation of "In Flanders Fields” by UMass professor emeritus Arthur Quinton, the raising of the American flag by U.S. Marine Corps veteran Victor Nunez, commander of the VFW Post 754, and retired Air Force Col. Terry Fenstad, commander of the American Legion Post 148.
During the flag raising, the crowd joined together to sing the national anthem after a recording malfunctioned.
Several veterans held additional Veterans of Foreign Wars and American Legion flags while standing at attention during the ceremony.
Rev. Alison Wohler of the Unitarian Universalist Society of Amherst concluded the event by reminding people to think about veterans on Veterans Day and at all times. "Let us spread the love,” Wohler said.
Dunnican said he and several other students who attended the commemoration appreciated being invited to participate. "It’s an honor and humbling to be a part of this,” Dunnican said.