On a brisk Wednesday morning, four days before Veterans Day and the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I, political officials, veterans groups and community members gathered to honor local veterans and service members.
The hour-long ceremony, held at Mitchel Square Park in Washington Heights, was organized by Rep. Adriano Espaillat and recognized the work of three veterans organizations: The American Legion, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America and The Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States.
“We stand firm and united in our appreciation for those heroes who fought and risked their lives so that we can live our lives in freedom and liberty as Americans,” Espaillat told the crowd. “This Veterans Day and every single day we appreciate that our freedom is certainly not free, and we salute those who served our country at home and around the world in the name of freedom and democracy.”
Anival Barrett, 73, a Vietnam War combat veteran, and president of the NYC-based Veterans Action Group, Inc., came to show his support. He described what Veterans Day and events like this one meant to him.
“For me, I remember,” Barrett said. “I remember being young. I remember other young veterans and some of them never came home. I’m here to support them and remember.”
Another Vietnam veteran, Eugene Parrotta, 71, originally from the Bronx and now a Croton-on-Hudson resident, runs the Downstate New York chapter of the charity Purple Heart Homes that helps provide housing to disabled veterans, also attended in support of veterans and other organizations.
“Most Vietnam veterans will tell you that Veterans Day probably means more to them than anybody else,” Parrotta said. “From 1776 to this day, there’s a commonality between all veterans. All wars had support going and support coming back, except for Vietnam. So, for us, it’s more of we’re here and we didn’t go away.”
Kevin Fitzpatrick, 52, a Marines Corps veteran and program director of the WWI Centennial Committee for NYC, attended the event dressed in a World War I uniform.
“Knowing there are no World War I veterans living, it’s nice for us to come out and stand in for those men and women,” Fitzpatrick said. “It’s a real honor and really helps with living history to be wearing a vintage uniform that another man wore 100 years ago.”
Local officials, including Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer and Sen. Robert Jackson, spoke at the event in front of the Washington Heights-Inwood War Memorial. The recently restored memorial honors World War I veterans from the Washington Heights and Inwood area who lost their lives.
The monument, which depicts three soldiers, two standing and supporting one kneeling injured soldier in battle, was sculpted by Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, founder of the renowned Whitney Museum of Art.
One of the soldier’s bayonets on the monument was vandalized last year, said Jonathan Kuhn, director of arts and antiquities for the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation.
“The blade on the bayonet has had a checkered history,” said Kuhn. “You’re looking at the third one. We’ve just recast a new piece.”
Dr. Rudy Leibel, co-director of Columbia University’s Naomi Berrie Diabetes Center, who is also a veteran of the U.S. Army Medical Corps, helped fund the most recent restoration of the Washington Heights-Inwood War Memorial that the NYC Parks Department finished last week.
“I didn’t want the monument defaced that way,” said Leibel, whose medical office is across the street. “It’s a very important historical reminder not only of the first World War, but all of the men who have lost their lives and been injured in service to their country.”
The monument’s pedestal has 20 plaques that are inscribed with 357 names of the local men who died in World War I.
“Looking at all those names shakes me up,” said John Higgins, 73, a Vietnam War veteran and long-time Washington Heights resident.
Higgins said he showed up to Wednesday’s ceremony in solidarity with the men who served as he did. “It’s important to keep the memories alive and not to forget who we are, and how our lives were molded.”