There was no shortage of eloquent statements from military veterans, politicians, and the chiefs of local police and fire departments at the Nov. 11 Veterans’ Day Memorial Ceremony at the Veterans’ Memorial Building in downtown Hollister. In more than once instance, veterans and civil servants were one in the same—including Congressman-elect Jimmy Panetta, a Navy vet, and Fire Chief Bob Martin Del Campo, who has seen service as a Marine and in the U.S. Army.
Veterans’ Day in Hollister was full and awe-inspiring beginning at 10:30 a.m. with the banner ceremony that has been a favorite of the community for the past couple years. Banners are placed along San Benito Street and side streets with the names and services of local residents currently on active duty. It was initiated by VFW Post 9242 Commander Bernie Ramirez, a Vietnam veteran, who promised that the banners would remain in place as long as the service member remained on active duty. So far, he’s been able to keep his word, and as service personnel leave the military and come home, their banners are taken down and given to them or family members.
This Veterans’ Day, four banners were retired and returned to: Kyle R. Brown, Navy; Luis A. Guzman, Army; Rick Ward, Army; and Braden Stephens, Army.
Simultaneously, seven new banners were raised for: Brandon R. Zamora, Army; Derek Hahn, Army; Jeremy Canchola, Army; Ruben A. Garcia, Marines; Johnathan Plank, Navy; Kathleen Guzman, Army; and Joleen Guzman, Navy.
At 11 a.m., everyone moved inside the Vets’ Building for the Veterans Memorial Ceremony. As they passed through the foyer, City Councilman Raymond Friend, a veteran and member of American Legion Post 69, and Bob Duffy, also an American Legion member, were selling photographs by the late Jack Marcheski, a Korean veteran, to benefit veterans and the community.
Inside the building were hundreds of people who came to honor veterans, as well as veterans themselves going back to World War II. Before the ceremony began, Ramirez told BenitoLink that pulling off the annual event is no small matter.
“We’ve been meeting almost every week for the last four months,” he said. “We have a great team and between all of us we pulled it together. But it took the entire four months to get sign-ups, the banner program together, the speakers, the food, set-ups and cleaning, and figuring out how we were going to do the parade.”
Panetta, who was elected Tuesday to represent San Benito County in Congress, came to speak during the ceremony. Outside, he talked to World War II veterans and others. He told BenitoLink, “We’re obviously reminded of our everlasting obligation to our veterans, and with that foundation it helps us go forward and continue to serve them. What we’ve realized is sometimes in our country we can’t leave it up to the government and it comes down to events like this, communities like we have on the Central Coast to get things done and serve our veterans.”
After being presented with a resolution by a representative of Assemblyman Luis Alejo, naming Ramirez as the San Benito County Veteran of the Year, the veteran began the ceremony thanking the wives of the VFW members and the increasing number of volunteers. He went on to recognize all veterans in the room by asking them to stand and be recognized.
“It doesn’t matter where you served,” he told them. “You did what you were asked to do and served where you were asked to go. The badge of veteran will go with you the rest of your life. Wear it with honor, pride, integrity, and always hold your head up high.”
Ramirez said the word “veteran” has a new meaning today.
“Back when we (Vietnam vets) came home there were no welcomes to you,” he said. “There were no parades. Now, being a veteran is worn as a badge of honor. Being a veteran means still serving your country and your community after you’ve come home. A veteran means helping those who went before you and helping those who will come after you. It’s come a full circle and it’s time to show our new veterans the support we should have received. We need to lead by example so no veteran who comes after us will ever be alone.”
In light of recent post-election protests in cities across America, Ramirez noted, “The flag that college students burn is the same flag that drapes the coffins of our returning heroes.”
Panetta greeted the crowd as “fellow veterans,” and thanked everyone for allowing him to speak on “our day; Veterans Day.” He began with an 1865 quote from Abraham Lincoln, which he said he thought was not only appropriate for the election week, and for Veterans Day. He said Lincoln’s comments spoke clearly of the country’s obligation to the country and its veterans.
“Let us strive to bind up our nation’s wounds and care for those who have borne the battle, the widows and the orphans,” Panetta quoted Lincoln, and then said of the current time, “After this week, and this election, it is time for our nation to heal. It is time for our nation to come together.”
After a sustained applause, he continued without notes: “We understand that when we come together, when we rally together, when we work together, and most importantly, when we govern together, that is what makes America strong. But we also understand that when it comes to our obligation to our veterans, we must come together.
Panetta said that, for the most part, the government lives up to its obligation to veterans. But he said there are times when it doesn’t. He commented on recent news events, of National Guard members being told to return bonuses; the VA failing to serve veterans; and the alarming instances of veteran suicides. He said if it is left only to the government to care for veterans, it will not happen.
“That is why we come together today,” he said. “It’s up to us to carry out that obligation. As veterans, we understand that obligation. We have a bond not only to each other, but to this nation. A bond that weaves into the history of this country and into the fabric of every American flag you see flying so gloriously.”
Some might think a Congressman would be a hard act to follow as an orator, but Fire Chief Bob Martin Del Campo was up to the task as the keynote speaker when he greeted his fellow veterans in the hall, and then displayed a bit of wit at Panetta’s expense. Martin Del Campo said he spent 13 years in the Marine Corps, which was interrupted by several “oorahs” from fellow Marines in the room. He said he had done 32 years of service with his first combat tour when he was 49 years old, and commented that most veterans face combat at 18 or 19.
He noted that only 7 percent of the nation serves in the military.
“That’s a small number and it tells you something about the warriors of this nation,” Martin Del Campo said. “The common fact is that at age 19 we chose to wear the cloth of our nation in defense of our country. The common ground is we’ve been through an experience that provides us with the opportunity to view the way we are with each other. When two veterans meet there’s a ritual, a qualification process happens. ‘So, you served?’ the conversation goes. ‘Yeah, I served.’ ‘What were you in?’ ‘I was in the Navy.’ ‘Oh, I was in the Marine Corps.’ The philosophy is, the worst branch, the worst job, and the worst tour of duty, you win.”
The veterans in the building knew exactly where he was coming from as they laughed and cheered.
“It doesn’t mean I’m better than you,” he quipped, “it means you’re not as good as me.” Then he aimed his comical barbs at Panetta. “I was in Afghanistan and Panetta was in Afghanistan. He was in the Navy and I was in the Marine Corps, and that’s all I’m going to say about that.”
Panetta took the joke in good cheer as the crowd applauded. Then the chief said, “And I’m a fire chief and he’s a politician, and that’s all I’m going to say about that.”
Martin Del Campo went on to describe the unique ability for fellow veterans to communicate and bond. He said he could talk to a World War II or Afghanistan veteran and strike up a conversation.
“We get it,” he said. “We do our service and we come back and try to find our place here among people like you, our peers and people who support us. I’m proud I served.”
Ray Lopez, one of the new members of VFW Post 9242, said he was honored when his post commander, Ramirez, asked him to speak as a representative of the “younger” generation veterans. He said being a member of the VFW has served as therapy for him.
“Whether we’re a young or old veteran we know what it is to be a veteran,” Lopez said, recounting how he enlisted in the Marines in 1996. “In boot camp we woke to the ‘National Anthem’ and we went to bed with ‘Taps.’ Every moment I spent in the service intensified my patriotism for America and its citizens.”
He said he would never forget Sept. 11, 2001, when he was loading up helicopters for a training mission when he heard about the attack on the Twin Towers in New York.
“When we got the call over the radio that we had been attacked, we knew what was coming, and after seeing it on the news there wasn’t a soul in our unit who didn’t know what we had to do to keep our country safe,” Lopez said. “Everyone volunteered to go out on the first wave.”
Having done three combat tours, he said that every time they returned home, he and his fellow soldiers were always greeted by the communities as heroes.
“I knew then why we’re veterans,” Lopez said. “We are veterans because we perform our duties to protect the greatest country in the world. We are veterans because we defended our nation’s way of life. We are veterans because we stood next to our brothers- and sisters-in-arms in a war against terrorism. We are veterans because you all are worth fighting for.”
He ended with a personal note: “I still get goose bumps when I hear the ‘National Anthem.’ I still get sad when I hear ‘Taps.’ I still stand at attention when ‘God Bless America’ is playing in the seventh inning stretch (of a baseball game). And I always place my hand over my heart when our flag is honored. I know many in our nation are protesting right now. But let’s remember, through the good and the bad, we would never want to live in any other country in the world. So, I ask, the next time you hear the ‘National Anthem,’ or see the Stars and Stripes, place your hand over your heart, remove your cap, and stand in silence and respect our National Ensign.”