Veterans, their families and the challenges they face on behalf of the country were spotlighted by a series of speakers during a Veterans Day celebration held Saturday at the American Legion Post 20 in Kenai.
Post Past Cmdr. Dave Segura led attendees through a variety of ceremonies, and dignitaries representing local, state and national government and spoke to honor servicemembers before an audience largely comprised of veterans and their families.
Segura opened the celebration with a brief history of Veterans Day, from its beginnings as an expansion of Armistice Day, in Alabama in 1945, to becoming a federal holiday in 1954. He described a brief period, from 1971 to 1977, in which the event was moved into October before being returned to Nov. 11.
The post’s color guard proceeded through the dining space, around tables filled with veterans and with visitors, and placed the flags in stands before Post Chaplain Mike Meredith gave an invocation.
Special recognition was given to Bill Fields, a 102-year-old veteran — the oldest at the Post — and founding member of the Soldotna chapter of the Veterans of Foreign Wars who earned a Purple Heart for his service in World War II. He died earlier this year.
“His passion was to outreach and community service,” Segura said. “We’re going to miss him dearly.”
A drape was placed over the Post’s charter in Fields’ honor, and another prayer was said by Meredith.
Post Cmdr. Ron Homan read the American Legion’s vision statement, pointing to the value that veterans offer to communities and the recognition they deserve. He read, “a veteran is a veteran, which means the American Legion embraces all current and former members of the military and endeavors to help them transition into their communities.”
Ceremonies were also held in recognition of prisoners of war and those missing in action. An honor guard fired rifles and attendees cast poppies on a symbolic grave in memory of fallen soldiers.
The first dignitary to speak was City of Kenai Mayor Brian Gabriel, who spoke of Veterans Day as multifaceted. Although a clear somber tone filled many of the speeches, Veterans Day is at its core a “celebration of all the veterans who have given so much and sacrifice so much so we’re allowed to have what we have,” Gabriel said.
Gabriel also pointed to higher-than-average rates of depression and suicide in veterans compared to the general public.
“This is a problem,” he said. “This needs to be addressed; they need to understand that they are valued and they will continue to be valued even after their military service.”
Representatives of Sen. Lisa Murkowski, Sen. Dan Sullivan and Gov. Mike Dunleavy also delivered statements on behalf of their offices.
Tanya Lautaret spoke representing Sen. Murkowski, describing a need to honor veterans and “seek to repay” a debt that can’t ever be repaid enough.
Elaina Spraker spoke representing Sen. Sullivan, who echoed a statistic earlier spoken by Lautaret — that Alaska has the greatest number of veterans per capita than any other state in the U.S. She said she never gets tired of “bragging about that.”
“The Kenai Peninsula has the highest per capita in the state,” she said. “Senator Sullivan didn’t say that, I’m injecting that.”
Spraker spoke of recognizing not just the “men and women in uniform,” who make inconvenient sacrifices, but also said gratitude should be offered to the partners and children who are left to worry or who lose loved ones.
Sen. Jesse Bjorkman, R-Nikiski, said “freedom is not genetically passed to our kids,” instead that it is something learned and taught. He said Veterans Day is an opportunity to listen to and learn from veterans’ stories of sacrifice and devotion.
Bjorkman and Gabriel both said they were grateful to see younger attendees exposed to those stories at the ceremony on Saturday.
Jill Schaefer delivered a proclamation by Gov. Dunleavy naming Nov. 11 Veterans and Remembrance Day in Alaska and calling on Alaskans to honor veterans by “participating in ceremonies and expressions of gratitude.”
Kenai Peninsula Borough Mayor Peter Micciche pushed back on the word dignitary, saying that the veterans in attendance were more deserving of the title that day. Instead, he said, he is someone “in awe of your commitment and sacrifice to our country.”
Last to speak was Soldotna Mayor Paul Whitney. He read another proclamation saying that servicemembers, veterans and their families are “vital to the security and prosperity” of the U.S. He named November 2023 Veteran and Military Families Month in Soldotna, asking residents to thank and support those who have given service and sacrifice for the country.