More than 100 members of Woodhaven Post 118 of the American Legion gathered under sunny skies to honor 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 Garden of Remembrance is a replica of a military cemetery.
The program began with a prayer by Post Chaplain and Vietnam War veteran Al Scott, followed by the Pledge of Allegiance and the singing of the national anthem.
John Lawless, commander of the post, noted that three new markers have been added to the garden this year.
“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, president of the group’s Ladies Auxiliary and members of the Junior Auxiliary.
The ceremony concluded with Scott reading a special prayer in remembrance of those who gave their lives in service to their country.
The Memorial Day Remembrance Service has a special meaning to Scott, who lost several comrades in the Vietnam conflict.
Scott served three tours in Vietnam and was awarded two Army Commendation medals, the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart.
He joined the U.S. Army in December 1967 and was assigned to the 123rd Aviation Battalion, serving in Vietnam as a medevac helicopter crewman, rescuing downed wounded airmen and transporting them to the hospital ship for treatment.
Scott also served with the Fire Department at Chu Lai Air Base in Vietnam.
In late 1970, he returned to the United States as a drill sergeant in Fort Dix, New Jersey.
When his three-year enlistment ended, Scott re-enlisted and went on his third tour to Vietnam from October 1971 to July 1972, assigned to the 240th Assault Helicopter Company at Da Nang Air Force Base, which was responsible for transporting troops and supplies.
He was wounded on this tour of duty and was taken to the Army hospital in Guam and subsequently to Walter Reed Army Hospital in Washington, D.C.
Scott was honorably discharged in August 1973 from Fort Hamilton in Brooklyn and is enjoying his retirement in Woodhaven.
Scott said that as the post’s chapalin, he was concerned that fewer and fewer people were attending the Memorial Day events from prior years. “There should be more people paying their respects,” he said.
Among those paying homage to the fallen heroes was member Al Matukonis, 94, 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 Douglas MacArthur’s bodyguards and had trained to invade Japan.
“It’s a wonderful thing to honor these veterans,” Matukonis said of Memorial Day.
Army Reserve Sgt. Major David Valentin is the post’s vice commander and has served in the Army for over 32 years.
Valentin was a member of the Naval Cadets when he was in high school and joined the Army when he was 21.
He is a military police officer currently assigned to the 800th Military Police Brigade in Farmingdale, LI.
Valentin participated in Operation Desert Storm in 1991 and in Kosovo, Yugoslavia in 2001.
His reserve unit was reactivated after Sept. 11, 2001 and assigned to Fort Totten in Bayside to perform Homeland Security operations.
He was deployed in January 2003 with his military police unit to Iraq, where he spent 15 months. Valentin returned home in April 2004.
He joined the American Legion 11 years ago on his return from Kosovo and has been the vice commander of the post for the last four years.
Valentin believes that Memorial Day should be a somber day of remembrance.
“This is my day of reflection,” he said.
“We must keep the legacy of remembrance for those family members, for the children,” he continued.
State Sen. Joe Addabbo Jr. (D-Howard Beach) — who serves as the ranking Democratic member of the state Senate Standing Committee on Veterans, Homeland Security and Military Affairs — said in a statement, “Memorial Day offers a time for all of us to pay tribute to the veterans, both in battles past and in more recent conflicts, who have made the ultimate sacrifice on our behalf. Without their courage, their valor, and their complete willingness to put their love of country over and above their own safety, we would not be enjoying the precious freedoms we are enjoying today as New Yorkers and as Americans.”
Memorial Day, originally called Decoration Day, was first observed in the Civil War era and officially recognized by New York State as a holiday in 1873. It was declared a national holiday by Congress in 1971 and is observed on the last Monday in May.