On previous Veterans Days, a couple hundred or so veterans and family members would pack the pavilion at Hawaii Veterans Cemetery No. 1.
But for the second straight year, due to the novel coronavirus pandemic, perhaps a couple dozen attended Thursday’s ceremony at the Hilo veterans cemetery. Others watched the event organized by the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 3830 and VFW Auxiliary 3830 of Pahoa online.
Some of the trappings of Veterans Days past, including patriotic music by the Hawaii County Band, were conspicuously absent. However, the spirit of the day to honor veterans who served in the U.S. Armed Forces was on display.
Retired Army Col. Deb Lewis, state commander of the VFW and adjutant of Post 3830, noted that even veterans are sometimes under the mistaken impression the day honors only for those who served or died on the battlefield.
“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve met veterans who may have served two or three years who say, ‘Ah, I didn’t really serve. I didn’t go do this,’” Lewis said. “You know, that is nonsense. Everybody matters. Everybody was prepared to go” to war if called.
Added Pat Sauer, president of the VFW Auxiliary 3830, “We honor veterans today because we know that without them, there would be no land of the free.”
Lt. Col. Kevin Cronin, commanding officer of the Army’s Pohakuloa Training Area, highlighted a major difference between Veterans Day — always observed on Nov. 11 — and Memorial Day, when he opened his keynote speech with “Happy Veterans Day.” Although some say “Happy Memorial Day” as well, it’s inappropriate, no matter how well-intentioned, on a day set aside to honor the nation’s war dead.
“It is fitting that we dedicate this day to honoring our nation’s men and women who have raised their right hand to swear an oath to defend and serve our great country,” Cronin said, highlighting the inclusion of the living, as well as those who shed their lifeblood in defense of the country.
Cronin — who was accompanied by his wife, Anne, a foreign service officer for the U.S. Department of State, and their 6-month-old daughter, Anna — said that to him, Veterans Day is “mostly a day of thanks, remembrance and reflection.”
“And as I give thanks, remember and reflect, I ask myself, ‘What I should do to best honor those who’ve gone before me?’” he said. “There are two key things that immediately come to mind. First, living a life worthy of these veterans’ service and sacrifice, and honoring their legacy through my service. And second, ensuring that our nation, the community that we serve, understands the value and opportunity we find in our military service — and why that drove us and continues to drive many people to serve.
“This is the treasure, a treasure that is the intangible reward of serving. This treasure is the opportunity to protect our great nation, the greatest force for good and freedom in history. And the opportunity to be part of a living historical community and serve in the same ranks as heroes who served previously, and who continue to serve. The opportunity to share and sacrifice with others who have these same feelings, and build a bond that can’t be replicated anywhere.
“And most of all, the opportunity to serve a cause far greater than oneself.”
Mayor Mitch Roth told those assembled and viewing online that veterans “are the reason we have our freedom.”
“They paid pretty much a blank check with everything up to and including their lives,” Roth said, adding he hopes that soon, the Veterans Day Parade — which has been shelved the past two years because of COVID-19 — will once again take to Hilo’s streets.
Roth also publicly thanked two of his cabinet members who are veterans, both of whom were present. One is Retired Army Lt. Col. Doug Adams, the county’s director of Research and Development, and Lewis’ husband, who livestreamed video of the event. The other is Maurice Messina, the Department of Parks and Recreation director and a Navy veteran. His department maintains the island’s veterans cemeteries.
The mayor said Adams and Messina are no longer in the military, but “they continue to serve.”
“And that’s what I see in most of our veterans,” he said.
Retired Army Sgt. 1st Class Raymond Matsumura, a veteran of the Korean and Vietnam wars who earned the Silver Star and Bronze Star for valor and meritorious service, attended as a special guest. At 86 years old, Matsumura’s uniform fit as well as when he retired decades ago.
Matsumura, who recently returned to live on the Big Island after decades in North Carolina, didn’t speak from the podium, but told the Tribune-Herald afterward Veterans Day “means a great deal” to him.
“I lost a lot of friends,” Matsumura said. “I’m one of the lucky guys who came back from Vietnam and Korea.”
Matsumura also lost his Army dog tags in Vietnam — but in what appears to be an unusual occurrence, they were sent to him in North Carolina more than three decades later.
Matsumura didn’t mention his own valor, but recounted an incident that occurred in Vietnam shortly before his retirement. He explained that he had a feeling something bad was going to happen, and he felt compelled to leave the building he was in. Shortly thereafter, the building was destroyed by a bomb or artillery fire.
“I lost my clerk, my driver and my radio man. I was the only one who survived,” he said, adding he thought such occurrences happened “only in movies.”
“But something told me to get out of the building.”
Email John Burnett at email@example.com.