By Stephen J. Kotz
Heavy gray skies promised rain as Sag Harborites gathered at the World War I monument overlooking Otter Pond to lay wreaths before the village’s annual Memorial Day parade on Monday.
The assembly, led by a color guard and followed by veterans from all branches of the armed services, including the elderly and infirm who were ferried along the parade route in a fleet of golf carts, made its way down a quiet Main Street, where the American flag was displayed outside a handful of houses. Small knots of people stood on corners offering a smattering of applause as the marchers, accompanied by a lone drummer, passed by.
The parade included village officials, members of the Sag Harbor Fire Department, the Volunteer Ambulance Corps, and boy and girl scouts.
During a stop at the Civil War monument, where a larger crowd awaited, John Capello, a Navy veteran, read General John A. Logan’s order establishing Memorial Day in 1868.
“We should guard their graves with sacred vigilance, all that the consecrated wealth and toils of the nation can add to their adornment and security, is but a fitting tribute to the memory of her slain defenders,” he read.
The parade continued on to the Municipal Building, the Lance Cpl. Jordan Haerter Veterans Memorial Bridge, and Marine Park, where there are monuments to those who served in World War II, Korea, and Vietnam. At each stop, wreaths were placed, an honor guard fired a three-volley salute, and a bugler played “Taps.”
With intermittent rain falling, forcing the cancelation of a performance by the Sag Harbor Community Band, the procession made its way to Chelberg-Battle Post #388 of the American Legion, where Sag Harbor native Robert Ratcliffe, who served two tours in Vietnam with the U.S. Marine Corps, gave the keynote address.
“War is not pretty,” Mr. Ratcliffe told the audience that crowded into the hall. “It is a horror that deserves no celebration. Sometimes, though, it is unavoidable.”
The attendees included Christian Haerter and JoAnn Lyles, the parents of Lance Cpl. Haerter, who died in Iraq in April 2008, and Nicolesa Avevalo of Noyac, whose son, Orlando Perez, also died in Iraq, in February 2008.
Although there may have been near uniform support for involvement in struggles such as World War II, oftentimes, the nation is divided, as it was during Vietnam and the recent war in Iraq, Mr. Ratcliffe said. “When we send our children — when we send our soldiers — in engage in war, we face a dilemma,” Mr. Ratcliffe continued. “How do we honor their service without glorifying war.”
Quoting British Prime Minister William Gladestone, Mr. Ratcliffe said, “Show me the manner in which a nation or community cares for its dead and I will measure exactly the sympathy of its people, their respect for the laws of the land and their loyalty to high ideals — and that brings to mind my hometown of Sag Harbor.”
The number of war monuments, spread out from one end of the village to the other, are evidence of Sag Harbor’s commitment to remember those who died in war, he said, mentioning by name Henry Loper and Gilbert Babcock who were killed in the Civil War and Jordan Haerter who died in Iraq.
“These four monuments are not to glorify war. They are a grateful community’s attempt to remember the veterans and their sacrifice,” Mr. Ratcliffe said. “In an era of 60-second sound bites, it is an attempt to say, ‘Your lives stood for something. You’re sacrifice is remembered.’ And in an era when humility seems to be in short supply, it is an attempt to humbly say, ‘Thank you.’ And this village definitely knows how to do that.”
Mr. Ratcliffe concluded his remarks by describing his experience participating in “The Telling Project,” in which veterans and their families talked about their experiences in a play-like performance. “I always thought when someone died in war that was it,” he said, but after numerous rehearsals when he heard the stories of Ms. Lyles and Dr. Frank Kesler, whose stepson Joseph Theinert died in Afghanistan, he said he realized there was more to it.
“What I heard from these two people, they wanted those children to be remembered not only for what they did in combat but for what they did before,” he said, urging his audience to “take the time out of our busy schedule to listen to the story, because that is part of the healing.”
“And that’s what today is,” he concluded. “Today is the day that we remember, but when we leave here, we should think of it as an every-day practice, one day at a time.”
Monday’s observance included a short address by Hap Wills, the commander of the Sag Harbor Veterans of Foreign Wars, who praised the service of members of the all-voluntary American armed forces. “Some people have baseball players, football players and basketball players for heroes,” he said. “For me, the real heroes are those who served their country.”
Pierson High School student Alex Browngardt read “The Gettysburg Address” and the Pierson choir performed “The Star Spangled Banner” and “God Bless America.”