New Paltz senior-care facility unveils “wall of honor” celebrating local vets

New Paltz Veterans (left to right):Bill Goggin, Donald Hart, Juan Gonzalez, Russell Applebee and Bernard Dillon. (Photo by Lauren Thomas.)

Seven residents of the New Paltz Center, a senior-care facility on Jansen Road, were honored last Friday for their military service with the unveiling of a “wall of honor” including their photographs and an American flag flown over the U.S. Capitol in their honor.

In a room bedecked with bunting and flags made of thin plastic film, the honorees and other residents were joined by family members and representatives from two American Legion posts. Swells of music from the mid-20th century wafted over the room, giving rise to nostalgia of a time when Glenn Miller was willing to give up a promising musical career to entertain Americans on the front lines of a war that changed the course of history.

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The festivities were heralded by a jazzy version of “America the Beautiful,” and kicked off with the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag and the country it represents. Religion was introduced with a simple invitation to silently pray, each in one’s own way, and a moment of silence observed for those service members who never returned home in life or death. Wreaths were laid before a makeshift shrine to honor each of the five branches of military service (Marines, Coast Guard, Navy, Army and Air Force) with another laid in memory of prisoners of war and others missing in action, whose fates remain unknown. Musicians found appropriate music to accompany the laying of each wreath.

It was only then that the wall of honor was revealed, displaying images of Air Force veterans Donald Hart and Bernard Dillon, Army veterans William Goggin, Russell Appleby and Theodore Daly, and Marines Kenneth Helmich and Juan Gonzalez. (Common wisdom suggests that there is no such thing as a retired Marine.) At the request of Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, a flag was flown over the U.S. Capitol on June 22 in their honor. Members of Congress provide this service to any constituent for a nominal fee. The seven veterans also received plaques commemorating the occasion and their service; it was enough to move some of them to tears. Memories of such sacrifice clearly run deep. American Legion member Phil LaRocco followed this with a reading of the poem It is a Veteran, which describes the role of military members in defending the rights enumerated in the U.S. Constitution.

Some of those honored reflected briefly upon their service. They served in the 1950s through the 1980s, most of them as soldiers or non-commissioned officers. Appleby, Hart and Helmich all confirmed that they were a sergeant or equivalent when they mustered out; Gonzalez was a lance corporal. Helmich, who declined to be photographed, would not provide any details about when or how he served in the Marines out of concern for his safety, even today.

No nursing home celebration is complete without cake, and this one was properly festooned in patriotic colors. What was clear as the honorees enjoyed each bite, was that being remembered for their sacrifices remains important to them, even decades after they last wore the uniform.