SCHUYLERVILLE – While the nation is mired in a cultural war, a decorated veteran who flew combat helicopters during wartime told those gathered at Gerald B.H. Solomon Saratoga National Cemetery on Wednesday to thank — and give opportunities to — veterans.
The keynote speaker at the Veterans Day ceremony, retired Lt. Col. Jamie Cox, a 20-year Marine Corp naval aviator, said veterans today face more challenges than those of the past, including higher unemployment rates, significant mental health issues, and a suicide rate that’s higher than the civilian population.
“Despite the derision and divisive talking heads that we see on TV or on the internet, it is our veterans who’ve been the foundation and continue to be,” said Cox, who serves as president and CEO of United Way of Northern New York.
“They’re firefighters, they’re school teachers, they’re bus drivers, they’re small business owners — they’re keeping us together,” said Cox, who flew attack helicopters in 117 combat missions during tours in Kuwait, Somalia, Haiti and Iraq.
Cox asked attendees not to relegate the honoring of veterans solely to Veterans Day.
“There’s meal discounts and retail store sales. But what our veterans really need is support all year round. Whether you’re giving them thanks, or opportunity, that’s all our veterans ask.”
The event was held the day before the actual holiday because the Veteran’s Administration disallowed formal ceremonies on Thursday because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The ceremony was sponsored by the Saratoga National Cemetery Support Committee and included inspiring contributions from Stillwater schoolchildren.
One student, Finley Bornt, honored her grandfather who served in the military as she read an essay at the podium.
“So if I asked you right now to leave your family and everything you own to fight for your country, what would you say?” Bornt asked. “I’m guessing you would be very uncertain about that. This is why our veterans are our heroes.”
John Mehan, chairman of the Saratoga National Cemetery Support Committee, grew emotional during his tribute to prisoners of war.
“I’ve done their ceremony probably 50 times over the last 10 years,” Mehan said, fighting tears. “Every time I do it — it’s tough.”
In front of Mehan was a table set for one that symbolized POWs, or “brothers.”
The single table setting was intended to symbolize the frailty of one prisoner against his or her suppressors, Mehan said.
Amidst the tranquility of the cemetery, Cox, described the chaos of battle — and what came after.
“I can feel the sting of the Vietnam veterans, and men and women that came home and our nation failed to thank you,” the speaker added.
“I remember the moment to moment living in a Cold War, when we counted on men and women to be ready at a moment’s notice,” said Cox, a Watertown resident.
“And of course I can’t forget the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, as we watched our people die at the hands of a merciless enemy.”
“I can see hear, taste, touch and smell the chaos of combat,” he said. “I can see women to my left and men to my right. I can hear their screams, yells, sobs and laughter.”
Today’s veterans, Cox said, are an interwoven tapestry of the men and women who served the U.S. for 245 years.
Contact reporter Brian Lee at [email protected] or 518-419-9766.