'Support and defend' — Local veterans honored at North Adams memorial

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NORTH ADAMS — Parades and ceremonies are intentional moments of pause to honor veterans, but there's a great need to remember to support and serve veterans every day, just as they have served the nation.

"We are here to honor the men and women, that, during our country's time of need, answered the call to duty and joined the United States Armed Forces. We call them veterans," said Air Force veteran James Brehio, 70, of Templeton, during Monday's Veterans Day ceremony at the Veterans Memorial Wall in North Adams.

James Brehio, a national executive committeeman for the American Legion Department of Massachusetts, encouraged veterans to stand front and center and to raise their voices to make sure their needs are met.

He even ordered veterans in the audience, which included representatives from World War II up to the War in Afghanistan, to be recognized by their civilian counterparts. They obeyed humbly.

Brehio, an active runner, sports coach, and member of the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars, raised his own right hand, repeating the 72-word oath of enlistment that he and nearly 10 percent of the current population have taken in their lifetimes, committing to defend the nation's constitutional rights and liberties.

"You, the veterans, are our country's best 10 percent," he said.

But, he said, veterans still lack adequate health care and services. He cited the 2014 Department of Veterans Affairs health care scandal in Phoenix that exposed the cases of more than 30 veterans who died while waiting for medical appointments, and the current crisis afflicting tens of thousands of so-called Blue Water Navy Vietnam veterans who are still waiting for their Agent Orange disability claims to be processed.

Reaching into his pocket, he pulled out his American Legion and VFW membership cards. "With these cards, I have a voice," he said.

But membership in both organizations have dropped over the years. Post World War II, he said, membership to the American Legion was around 3.3 million; in 2004 that figure was about 2.3 million, now, he said, it's down to 1.8 million.

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"Our numbers are getting low. What happens if they get too low?" Brehio asked. "What happens to our next generation of veterans when they're coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan?"

The current U.S. veteran population is some 18 million people strong.

"Just think how powerful, in a perfect world, that everyone who joined the military, became an honorably discharged veteran, joined a military organization," he said. "With 18 million or 20 million voices to be heard from, we would get all our veterans have earned and all our veterans deserve, and their families."

Representing veterans in Monday's ceremonies were members of American Legion Post 125, VFW Post 996, Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 54, American Veterans Post 100 and Sons of the American Legion Squadron 125.

In addition to members of local law enforcement, the Fire Department and ambulance services, members of the Drury High School band and cheerleading team, as well as members of local Boy Scout, Cub Scout and Girl Scout troops and their families participated in the Monday's parade, the latter helping to hand out American flags to onlookers.

North Adams Cub Scout Pack 35 members led the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance, while American Legion Post 125 Senior Vice Commander Mitchell Keil served as master of ceremonies and the Rev. David Anderson, pastor of the First Baptist Church of North Adams, offered reflections and prayers.

In his remarks, North Adams Mayor Thomas Bernard highlighted the fact that female veterans often get overlooked and that they should also not be forgotten, as well as members of the ladies auxiliaries of the above groups. There are around 1.7 million female veterans in the U.S., according to 2018 American Community Survey data.

That fact warmed the heart of Tammy Lussier of Clarksburg, who, alongside her husband, Thomas Lussier, of American Legion Post 125, are very active in the veterans services community. From putting flags on graves to visiting veterans with gifts around the holidays, Lussier enlists her whole family, including grandchildren, to let local vets know they care.

"We bring them coffee and they tell us stories about their lives and the wars," she said. "We get choked up, and some of them cry too, because they feel never forgotten," she said.

Jenn Smith can be reached at jsmith@berkshireeagle.com, at @JennSmith_Ink on Twitter and 413-496-6239.


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