by Dennis Anderson,
special to Aerotech News
PALMDALE, Calif. — A series of emotional moments cascaded across a field of 2,020 American flags, with veterans in a variety of keys gathered for Veterans Day singing the songs of their respective branches of service, including a Vietnam War veteran of the Coast Guard who survived months of recovery from COVID-19.
Cheers erupted on the stage when retired Lt. Cmdr. Walter Sapp mounted the stage and chorused the words of the Coast Guard song, “Semper Paratus,” meaning “Always Ready.” He sang along with his Vietnam War-era vet buddy, Dave Corbin, of the American Legion and Patriot Guard Riders.
Sapp spent more than three months hospitalized — a Vietnam War veteran with a number of underlying conditions, including age, he fought for his life on a ventilator, only returning after weeks in the Greater Los Angeles VA Health Center in West Los Angeles.
He was an inspiration to all who knew him, and many got on their feet to cheer him on.
Others sang their tunes, trying to keep up with a thundering public address system, with Army “War on Terror” vet John Parsamyan singing “The Army Song,” with its caissons rolling along, Vietnam War sailor Terry Ritz singing “Anchors Aweigh,” and Iraq War veteran of the Air Force Mayra “Dee” Duarte singing the Air Force song, “Off We Go Into the Wild Blue Yonder,” as a pair of F-16s from Edwards Air Force Base thundered overhead.
As is often the case at his weekly Coffee4Vets coffee klatsch, Marine veteran Tony Tortolano stood tallest, and sang loudest, “The Marine Corp Hymn.” And Marine veterans got to their feet en masse.
The City of Palmdale, which spearheaded the display of thousands of flags at Pelona Vista Park, took pains to deliver a safe event on a large field where the hundreds of veterans and their friends and family would not crowd together and create a danger of spreading COVID-19. Mask-wearing on the field was carefully observed, and seats were placed at social distance while others remained on their feet.
City of Palmdale Mayor Steve Hofbauer welcomed all the dignitaries and recognized Palmdale’s city manager, J.J. Murphy, as a veteran himself, “an Air Force major.”
Murphy approached the Palmdale City Council with the proposal of 2,020 flags on a large field to mark an inflection point in a year that has been a challenge for everyone dealing with a still unfolding pandemic, a battered economy, and protests for social justice in the wake of the killing of George Floyd at the hands of police in Minneapolis.
Murphy proposed that all the flags purchased be used to fund veterans service groups — and that the flags themselves honor veterans and active-duty troops, as well as law enforcement, firefighters, and frontline health care workers taking care of people during the pandemic.
When the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department deputies who patrol in Palmdale entered the field there was a wave of applause.
“We wanted to do this to honor the living, and the ones no longer with us,” Murphy said, and realized that he was already tearing up one page into his speech. “We wanted to honor our law enforcement, and firefighters, and the health care personnel who have done so much to save lives and protect us.”
Murphy shared his story of working in the Air Force Rescue Coordination Center and a mission he dispatched to retrieve a sea captain on a Panamanian-registered ship who had taken seriously ill. The elite Air Force unit of rescue jumpers, “The PJs” were alerted, and the rescue succeeded. But, on his first operational mission, Air Force Staff Sgt. Douglas Eccleston died in the line of duty. His valor and willingness to serve provided Murphy some of the motivation to develop a concept that would contribute to national unity and healing in divisive times.
He thanked the key sponsoring organization, the Palmdale Auto Dealers Association, and he thanked newly arriving Amazon, Palmdale. The online retailer bought 100 flags in honor of the 16 Antelope Valley young men, and young woman, who have been killed in the wars that erupted after the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. They also sponsored flags dedicated to the “AV 76,” the 76 young men from the Antelope Valley who were killed in action during the Vietnam War.
Rick Casper, an Iraq War veteran and Army senior NCO, mounted the stage, and asked the hundreds gathered “to please remember the veterans.” To the veterans he said, “Remember the veteran. It’s our responsibility to take care of each other.”
Casper, vice president of the Antelope Valley Veterans Community Action Coalition, said his group is working to establish a cluster of 10 homes for veterans in transition.
The group’s keynote speaker was Col. Jay Orson, commander of the 412th Electronic Warfare Group based at Edwards AFB.
“When I was serving in Iraq, and Afghanistan, I always remembered that even as I was serving, that all of us there stood on the shoulders of veterans, the veterans who came before us,” he said. “I’m just an old colonel near the end of the runway of my career, and someday I will be one of the veterans out there.”
As the Blue Eagles Honor Guard of Edwards AFB marched in and presented the colors, a rousing performance of the National Anthem was belted out by saxophonist Herbie Kae. Fred Villa, chaplain of Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 3000, delivered the invocation, and Carl Hernandez of American Legion Post 348 recited his poem, “Thank You for Your Service.”
Flag sales went to support the operations of local non-profits that included Vets 4 Veterans, Coffee4Vets, Point Man Antelope Valley, American Legion Post 348 and VFW Post 3000.
The fighter jets that zoomed over the field as Air Force veteran Mayra Duarte led the crowd singing the “Wild Blue Yonder” were the “Skulls” of the 416th Flight Test Squadron.
“I couldn’t have timed that one better for the Air Force song, could I?” Murphy said.
The flags flew on the field from Nov. 1 through Nov. 11, Veterans Day.
Editor’s note: Dennis Anderson is a licensed clinical social worker at High Desert Medical Group. An Army veteran, he traveled twice to cover the Iraq War, embedded with an Antelope Valley unit of the California National Guard. He works on veterans and community mental health initiatives.