ST. ALBANS — A chilly fall morning didn’t keep the crowd of veterans, students and residents away from Taylor Park on Monday, during St. Albans City’s Veterans Day celebration.
More than 700 students from St. Albans City School marched to the park and lined Main Street while awaiting the parade. Students from St. Albans Town Educational Center (SATEC) also attended, and the Bellows Free Academy-St. Albans marching band joined the parade and played during the ceremony.
On the podium on the Civil War monument, U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders joined service leaders including Tim Hodet, commander of the local Veterans of Foreign Wars chapter. Most of the speakers, including Sanders, commented on the attendance of the area schools.
“It is really, really wonderful to see so many young people out here today to join us in honoring the men and women who have put their lives on the line to defend our country,” Sanders said. “It’s terribly important that young people understand the history of this country and the sacrifices that our veterans have made.”
Not only were St. Albans’ students attending the Veterans Day event, they also contributed. After Hodet, acting as master of ceremonies, made a few introductions, he handed the microphone to Dawson Blodgett, the eighth-grade president of Team U.S.A. at the city school. Blodgett proceeded to introduce fellow student speakers, one from each of St. Albans’ schools.
Nathaniel Loughlin, an eighth grader from SATEC, spoke first. He talked about what it means growing up with a veteran as a father, and told the crowd about the American flag his family flies 365 days a year.
Loughlin said his father is a daily reminder of what it means to have people serving the country’s military. “I have a lot of respect for what he and all our veterans have done for our country,” he said.
Popping up to the podium from where the BFA band was playing, high school senior Emily King said while Veterans Day is an important time to reflect on the service provided by service men and women, it’s something that should be on people’s minds all the time.
“It is just as important to remember our heroes every day,” King said. “We cannot let our gratitude end after this ceremony.”
For the last speaker from the student delegation, Blodgett introduced her classmate, Sophia Venturo, who said it is everybody’s responsibility to take advantage of the sacrifices made by veterans. She said U.S. citizens have many opportunities that were guaranteed by the work of dedicated men and women of the branches of the military.
“You gave us the opportunity for greatness,” Venturo said. “It is our responsibility to use these gifts wisely.”
Following the ceremony, students were seen approaching veterans, shaking their hands, and offering thanks. St. Albans City School Principal Joan Cavallo said the students have been spending a great deal of time learning about the importance of the military services, and the older students, especially, were comfortable going up and meeting veterans.
“They were so well-versed for why they’re here today,” Cavallo said. “We’ve really been teaching them to reach out.”
After the celebration, Sanders said it was an encouraging event in St. Albans to see the attendance and involvement of the students. He said he’s worried that there is a larger disconnect today between the country’s younger population and the veterans he spends a lot of his time in Washington fighting for.
Sanders used his time on the podium to talk about his efforts as the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee chairman. He discussed the “hundreds of thousands” of veterans who have returned from Iraq and Afghanistan with physical, mental and emotional wounds, and how important it is for the country to take care of those men and women.
“And it is our job, from a moral point of view, to make sure no matter what the political and financial problems are in Washington, that we never, ever turn our backs on any veteran, who is hurting in our country,” Sanders said.
Educational support, financial aid for veterans’ caregivers and better processes in the Veterans Affairs health care systems were a few points of success Sanders talked about. He also talked about providing veterans better access to housing and support, as well as addressing the concerns about the rash of sexual assaults in the military.
Sanders said he hopes more and more veterans can access the VA health care available to them. He discussed how those services are expanding within Vermont, with more services offered in more locations.
After the ceremony, Sanders said there are efforts underway to make VA services more accessible to Vermont’s veterans. One area the state has had success in, he said, is the use of community-based outreach clinics (CBOC), which provide some VA health care services in satellite sites around the state, including new sites in Burlington, Newport and Rutland.
While traveling is difficult for some veterans, Sanders said there are constant efforts to make the state’s VA services easier to access. He said he’s looking at setting up more small satellite sites in community health centers in areas such as St. Albans, so veterans don’t have to go all the way to Burlington for appointments.