Dozens of residents and veterans gathered Monday at Kenai’s Leif Hansen Memorial Park to recognize Memorial Day.
For Al Helminski, a Vietnam veteran, Memorial Day is both a solemn and joyous occasion.
“It means on one hand, a sad time for all those that we’ve lost, but a happy time that we have survived to be able to honor them and remember them,” Helminski said.
The Memorial Day ceremony was hosted by the Veteran’s Coalition of the Kenai Peninsula.
American Legion Post 20 Commander Gregory Fite, who served 23 years in the Army National Guard, said Memorial Day means everything to him.
“We would not be the country we are today if people weren’t willing to sacrifice for our country,” Fite said. “We wouldn’t have the freedoms like we do today. It means a lot to me.”
Fite welcomed guest speakers Sen. Dan Sullivan and Alaska World War II veteran Robert Harrison.
In his remarks Harrison reminded the crowd that “freedom is not free.”
“We continue to lose heroes every day in places like Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, in training accidents and missions around the world,” Harrison said. “As Americans, we should always remember that freedom is not free. It’s only possible because our fallen heroes have paid its high price.”
During his remarks, Sullivan said Alaska is home to more veterans per capita than any other state. According to U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, nearly 10% of Alaska’s total population are veterans.
“I try to do as many of the Memorial Day and Veterans Day ceremonies as possible,” Sullivan told the Clarion. “It’s really remarkable we have this big military population. When you look at our veterans and our military and families, it’s a huge part of the state and the Kenai Peninsula is a big proportion of that.”
Sullivan said he wanted to visit the peninsula to pay his respects to the veterans in the community. In his speech to residents, he said America’s service members have “done more to liberate people around the world from oppression and tyranny than any other force in human history.”
“That’s a fact that we don’t always think about,” Sullivan said.
Many of the afternoon’s speeches noted that since the Revolutionary War, more than a million Americans have lost their lives in the fight for freedom.
“We honor them all, not just the ones with the highest medals,” Harrison said in his speech. “They all died so we could cherish the things that we love: freedom, country and family.”
“That’s a lot of life,” Fite said. “That’s a lot of pain. We owe them a lot.”
Sullivan also urged veterans on the Kenai Peninsula who are struggling with local Veterans Affairs services to contact his office for help.
“If there is a veteran on the Kenai who is having issues with the VA — don’t fight that battle alone,” Sullivan said. “I’ve got a great team. Let us help veterans or families with some of the challenges people have with the bureaucracy in getting the benefits they’ve earned and the health care they’ve earned.”