Holyoke Community College honored veterans Wednesday in an early Veterans Day ceremony meant to celebrate, through speeches and music, the partnerships that exist between veterans and civilian communities -- those allies dedicated to supporting veterans and veterans causes.
"This is the largest Veterans Day event HCC has had in a long, long time, possibly ever," Student Activities coordinator Elizabeth Golen told the crowd gathered in the Bartley Center gymnasium.
Golen said her first experience with veterans on the HCC campus more than a decade ago was with a student whispering in her office, "I'm a vet," as if that was something to be ashamed about.
Since then, she said, the college has strived to make sure veterans feel welcome and that the campus is a place where they can feel proud of their military service. The Veterans Day ceremony, organized by HCC student-veteran Ed Dice, was testament to that.
The day's events began with the arrival of the Patriots Guard Riders on campus with a police escort. The riders held flags at the entrances to the Bartley Center as guests, including veterans from the Holyoke Soldiers' Home, entered for the morning ceremony.
Veteran broadcaster Ray Hershel, from Western Mass News, served as master of ceremonies and talked about his experience covering military activities as a journalist during his 47-year career. He credited the "freedom of the press I've enjoyed all these years" on the sacrifice of veterans in the service of the country.
"You are real American heroes," he said, "and we should all be thankful you are here with us today. We should never take our freedoms for granted."
Guest speaker Samuel Innocent, vice chairman of New York City Veterans Advisory Board, a former U.S. Army medic, talked about his struggles transitioning back to civilian life, particularly as a college student.
"Coming home was hard," he said. "Being removed for so long it was difficult for me to engage."
Ultimately, he said, his fellow student-veterans at the City College of New York "forced me out of my shell."
"A support network," he said, of veterans, family and friends, "is what makes a difference."
Bert McCasland, owner of At the Water's Edge dive shop in Westfield, teared up as he talked about teaching veterans to dive through the Combat Wounded Veterans Scuba Challenge, which teaches wounded veterans to dive.
Quoting Mother Theresa, he said, "We can do no great things, only small things with great love."
Dice, a veteran of the U.S. Army, displayed four folded, ceremonial U.S. flags in wooden cases, representing now deceased members of his family who had served in the armed forces: his father, U.S. Army master sergeant Harry Dice, and three uncles.
"Veterans, we hold the flag with honor, respect, dignity and pride," he said. "The flag means a lot to us. We stood in front of the flag to protect her and when it's our day, the flag ends up being our final bedsheet and then folded with the utmost respect, honor and dignity."
Providing entertainment were Michael Dionne, a New York singer who performed "Home," by Michael Buble, local musician Livio Granini, who sang "Amazing Grace," and rock keyboardist Tod Howarth, who performed "Amber Waves," an original song he wrote to honor the flag and those in the military.
"This is on an upcoming album, but that's not the point," Howarth said. "The point is that I wanted to play it for the people who deserve it."
PHOTOS by CHRIS YURKO: (Left) HCC student-veteran Ed Dice, right, presents guest performer Tod Howarth with a ceremonial flag at HCC's Veterans Day Celebration Wed., Nov. 4. (Right) Local veterans bow their heads during the singing of the National Anthem. (Thumbnail) The Patriot Guard Riders' arrive on campus before the start of HCC's Veterans Day celebration Wednesday.