Under bright sunny skies, about 125 members of Woodhaven Post 118 of the American Legion honored their fallen comrades during the group’s annual Memorial Day ceremony at their headquarters in Woodhaven on Monday. Community residents also attended the ceremony.
The cadets of Franklin K. Lane High School’s Air Force Junior ROTC participated in the service and set up a “Garden of Remembrance,” containing nearly 700 miniature crosses and Stars of David, each adorned with an American flag and a red poppy flower to represent a post member who died in service.
The program began with a prayer by post chaplain and Navy veteran Gerard Schwarz, 86, followed by the Pledge of Allegiance and the singing of the national anthem.
John Lawless, commander of the Post, then noted that this year eight new markers will be added to the “Garden of Remembrance.”
“Our departed comrades exemplify the highest virtues of citizenship and love of country by their service in our armed forces,” Lawless said. “I say to our deceased comrades, thank you, God bless you, we miss you, we will never forget you.”
Wreaths were laid at the foot of the monument on the Post’s front lawn by Loretta Phillips, vice president of the post’s Ladies Auxiliary and members of the Junior Auxiliary.
The ceremony concluded when Sgt. Major David Valentin, Post 118’s vice commander requested a moment of silence from the audience in remembrance of those who gave their lives in service to their country.
Among those paying homage was member Al Matukonis, 93, who served as a paratrooper during World War II and liberated Los Banos prison camp in the Philippines. Matukonis received the Bronze Star from the Army. He said his unit, the 11th Airborne Division, served as General MacArthur's bodyguards and had trained to invade Japan.
“It’s a wonderful thing to honor these veterans,” Matukonis said of Memorial Day.
Schwarz, the chaplain, said he is glad people remember what Memorial Day really means — that people are called upon to make the ultimate sacrifice to keep the country free.
Chief Master Sgt. Jose Silveira is a post member who serves as a senior aerospace instructor at Franklin K. Lane High School Air Force Junior ROTC. He has a long record of service.
Silveira has served with the 405th Fighter Wing in the Philippines during the Vietnam War, was assigned to the Southern Command during the United States’ invasion of Panama in 1989 and participated in Operation Desert Storm in 1991. He served with NATO in the 401st Tactical Fighter Wing of the 612th Tactical Fighter Squadron in Spain and Turkey. Silveira also was a military advisor to the Venezuelan Air Force.
He helped evacuate military personnel from the vicinity of Mount Pinatubo on the island of Luzon in the Philippines when it erupted in June 1991.
Back home, he was with the 309th Tactical Fighter Squadron at Homestead Air Force base when Hurricane Andrew roared into south Florida in August 1992 and virtually destroyed the base, which was ground zero for the category 5 storm.
The facility closed in 1994, and Silveira retired.
Silveira said that Memorial Day is very humbling to him because of all the comrades he has lost.
“Freedom and liberty isn’t free,” he said. “…yet how many people realize the sacrifice that went to get us where we are, to keep us where we are.”
He noted that it is especially important for Americans to remember that Memorial Day is more than just time off from work.
“I think that the meaning is sometimes distorted and lost,” he said. “To me, this should be a somber day of remembrance.”
Memorial Day, originally called Decoration Day, was first observed in the Civil Wara era and officially recognized by New York State as a holiday in 1873. It was declared a national holiday by Congress in 1971 and observed on the last Monday in May.