Tears, praise for veterans
Events honor service members for their sacrifice
When it was her turn to speak from the stage on 11th Avenue after Altoona’s Veterans Day parade Monday, Van Zandt VA Medical Center Director Sigrid Andrew touched cryptically on an event that her manner suggested had been life-changing.
It was 30 years ago, when she was a nurse in her 20s, an interaction with a veteran of World War I — the conflict that ended 100 years ago Sunday.
“I (still) hear his voice late at night,” Andrew told the audience of about 50 that remained after the parade ended. “Sometimes the things you learn you can’t unlearn.”
Later, asked to elaborate, Andrew hesitated, saying that if she spoke about it, she might cry. But she went on, anyway. And she cried.
The man had been dying at the VA hospital in Perry Point, Md., a blue-collar, shipbuilding area.
It was the middle of the night, and she had given him a painkiller, which can loosen the inhibitions, she said.
The man began to cry.
He told her about what had happened to him when he was a prisoner of war.
He was beaten on the back, with his arms bound behind, until he went unconscious, she said.
She saw the scars.
The beatings were accompanied by deprivation of food and sleep.
Later, the man’s wife told Andrew that her husband had never shared those experiences with her.
Andrew’s encounter with the “man of steel,” who after his war experiences became a productive member of society, cemented her determination to make the VA a career.
The man’s experience in “The Great War” also exemplifies the kind of fate that people risk upon entering the service, a risk severe enough to create an obligation within societies to offer a counterbalancing reward — the reservation of special honors for those who undergo the risk.
Thus, among other avenues for honor, there is Veterans Day.
A variety of dignitaries Monday spoke of the continuing obligation, including those who praised Blair County War Veterans Council Commander Lloyd Peck, the parade organizer.
They were joined by 8-year-old Coran Gilmore, who handed out sheets of typing paper on which he had drawn a message, one of which read: “Thank you four service/ from Loran Gilmore/ Thank you your dudy.”
Coran had been sitting at home the night before when family members had been discussing plans to attend the parade, when he asked whether he could write messages thanking the veterans, said his mother, Heather Gilmore.
Thanking veterans for their service has become commonplace in society, and Coran doubtless heard it.
“He’s a good-hearted kid,” his mother said.
Asked why he had decided to do it, Coran, in the abashed way typical of children his age, shrugged.
He and his mom then went back to seeking out recipients for the papers.
Felix Gonzalez was in a Penn State Altoona class downtown Monday when he heard bands playing, looked out and saw the parade.
“Why not?” Gonzalez asked himself. “It’s always a good way to (show) respect.”
Gonzalez, 19, was born and raised in Puerto Rico, although his family moved to Charles Town, W.Va., three years ago.
His grandfather, a veteran of the Vietnam War, has remained in Puerto Rico.
Gonzalez doesn’t know much about his grandfather’s experience in Vietnam, as “It’s a very touchy subject with him.”
The “atmosphere” connected with it and what his grandmother has said about it made it something to avoid, Gonzalez said.
“It’s a form of respect,” he added.
Parade attendee Bill Scott of Hollidaysburg served in the Air Force from 1956 to 1963.
Later, he became an Altoona firefighter and volunteered for 17 years at Van Zandt, where he would listen as combat veterans described their experiences.
“It would bring tears,” Scott said.
During his time in the service, he had been stationed at Donaldson Air Force Base in South Carolina.
If he’d been ordered to Vietnam, he’d have gone, he said.
He was fortunate not to be ordered, he said.
“(Others) sacrificed their lives,” he said. “That’s why I come to these.”
Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 949-7038.