NORTH GROSVENORDALE, Conn. (Tribune News Service) — Forty area veterans were honored at a Connecticut Wartime Service Medal ceremony at the American Legion Post 67 in North Grosvenordale, on Nov. 7.
They came from different branches of the service. They served in different wars and conflicts. They served in World War II and most recently in Afghanistan and Iraq. And on this Thursday, all were recognized for their sacrifices and service to the country.
State Sen. Mae Flexer and Ryan McKenna, the manager of the Office of Veterans Advocacy and Assistance, pinned the medals and awarded the service bars as each veteran was called individually.
Flexer called the event a perfect opportunity to recognize wartime veterans.
“It’s also an opportunity to say thank you to the men and women serving our country and who put themselves in harm’s way for us,” she said.
McKenna said it was the country’s moral duty to recognize the service rendered by its veterans.
It’s not the veterans who start the wars, or sit at the negotiation table or decide where and when to fight, McKenna said.
“The ceremony is a small way to honor and remember the veterans and the debt we owe them,” he said. “We must ensure this nation never forgets their service.”
Jean LaFontaine was 20 years old when he joined the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment, during the Vietnam War. His was a tank unit that moved all across southern Vietnam. He got a deferral while in technical school, but rather than being made a tank mechanic, he was made a tank commander.
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“I was a scared, young kid, but I was older than most of the boys,” he said.
Two months later, he was given a job typing up orders. He credits the good Sisters of the Holy Cross for teaching him how to type.
Victor Lippiello was a paratrooper during WWII. He made jumps during the Battles of Leyte and in Luzon, in the Phillippines.
“When I joined, I didn’t know what I was getting into,” he said. “I was fortunate. Many of them didn’t make it. I saw a few who didn’t make it.”
Lippiello initially planned on serving for one year, but then the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. His captain told them they were in for the duration plus six months. He ended up serving four years, nine months, and five days.
“I’m proud I served,” he said.
His brother, Constantino, served in the Navy aboard a destroyer escort. He was 17 years old when he joined with his father’s permission.
“I was young,” he said. “I wanted to serve my country.”
He served two years in the Atlantic and two years in the Pacific. His ship picked up some survivors of the USS Indianapolis sinking in July 1945. Only 316 of the 1,195 sailors aboard survived the Japanese attack.
“We picked up one guy who had a bunch of life jackets,” he said. “He’d taken them off dead sailors to stay afloat.”
Not all of the veterans had seen combat, but they had all put themselves at risk. Bernard Bellerose served in the U.S. Army from 1969 to 1972. He was stationed in South Carolina, at Fort Hood in Texas, and for a while in the Demilitarized Zone in Korea.
“It was quiet,” he said, “but we had to be ready.”
The Tourtellotte Memorial High School National Anthem singers performed during the ceremony. Chaplains Howard Flexer and Arthur McClean gave the invocation and benediction before the colors were retired.
“Some veterans continue to make sacrifices long after they serve,” Sen. Flexer said. “We don’t thank our veterans enough.”
LaFontaine was spit on and called a baby killer when he returned from the Vietnam War.
“All because I was wearing a green uniform walking through San Francisco International Airport,” he said. “The pain of that doesn’t go away.”
The medal helps.
“That someone recognizes the fact that we did something that had to be done,” he said.
The Connecticut Wartime Service medal is a gold medal attached to a blue, red, and white ribbon. Veterans received the accompanying service ribbon as well. The medal was established in 2005 by the Connecticut General Assembly to honor veterans who served for at least 90 days on active duty in a time of war and were honorably discharged.
For more information, and for eligibility guidelines, go to https://portal.ct.gov/DVA/Pages/CT-Veterans-Wartime-Service-Medal.