STORY AND PHOTOS BY KAREN BOSSICK
A small round table boasting flags and other symbols reminded everyone entering The Connection dining room Wednesday to take two minutes to remember Veterans on Veterans Day.
There seemed to be no problem with that as more than 150 men and women crowded into the senior center for a special Veterans Day lunch spearheaded by Higher Ground Sun Valley.
Red, white and blue balloons lined the walkway leading up to the building, while tiny American flags stuck in firecracker canisters and Uncle Sam hats served as table center pieces. Seven flags, including those representing the Marine Corps, Army, Air Force, Navy and U.S. Coast Guard, lined the wall behind Chef Erik Olsen’s serving counter.
“Quite the turnout,” remarked Dr. Frank Andrews, who served during the Vietnam War.
Former Army diesel mechanic Tom Hopkins Jr. showed off his service dog Duke, a big chocolate lab trained to help him with brain injuries he sustained during four tours during an eight-year period in Afghanistan, Quatar and Iraq.
His injuries scrambled the communication between his brain and his legs.
Duke pushes him into a chair when the dog senses Hopkins is about to fall. The dog lays on his legs in the morning until it’s satisfied Hopkins’ legs are ready to go to work. And when Hopkins does fall, Duke is big enough that Hopkins can put his hand on the dog to push himself up.
Gilbert “Tommy” Farr described his experience flying airplanes out of England and France during World War II.
“I flew a mission on D-Day. We were one of hundreds and hundreds of airplanes looking down at thousands of ships,” he recalled.
Monty Heath, a retired Navy SEAL, described his “awesome” experience as a SEAL.
The toughest part was going to funerals, he said. That included one for Navy SEAL Neil Roberts, a comrade who fell out of a helicopter trying to land in Afghanistan in a battle that later became known as the Battle of Roberts Ridge.
“All the stuff that takes to be done to be a SEAL is irrelevant as long as that’s truly what you want to do,” said Heath, who now serves as director of military programs for Higher Ground. “If you want it, it will happen.”
Sgt. First Class Genevieve Chase and her sister Warrant Officer Candidate Virginia Irwin were among the female veterans who were honored.
Chase, who served in Afghanistan, flies to Arizona once a month from Sun Valley to participate in the U.S. Army Reserve.
She is mindful of the liberties she has fought for because her mother’s Korean.
“My grandmother never dreamed in a hundred years that her granddaughters would have the freedoms we have—freedoms to do things like marry the people we want to,” she said. “I joined the Army Reserve in 2003, believing it’s our responsibility to give back. I wanted to see if I could help children in places like Afghanistan enjoy the same liberties that we do.”
Ret. Col. Richard Cardillo, director of operations for Higher Ground, told diners how the table he prepared at the front of the room was round to show that our respect for veterans is never ending.
The white tablecloth represents soldiers’ devotion to duty. The American flag stands for liberty; the five service flags, for camaraderie.
The field of blue stands for justice and freedom while the white tablecloth stands for purity.
The Bible on it represents how faith sustains soldiers in time of need, he recounted. The candle illuminates the way, helping veterans to see more clearly during a firefight. A rose stands for gratitude for veterans’ service and salt represents the tears shed by friends and family.
The table honors 21.7 million American veterans who are still alive and an MIA flag represents the 83,134 veterans whose remains are unaccounted for. About 73,000 of those are from World War II.
“That’s a lot,” said Cardillo.
The empty chair leaning against the table honors those who are absent but not forgotten, including POWs and MIAs.
“They’re part of our family,” Cardillo said.