WESTFIELD - If you were seated in the auditorium of Westfield Academy & Central School on Thursday evening, or had a part of the dedication of the Sgt. Kevin White Memorial Veterans' Wall of Honor, you can say you honored Veterans Day early this year.
Presented by the Westfield Teachers' Association, the unveiling of the memorial wall to honor United States military veterans across the ages solidified what the spirit of community and its thankfulness to the service of the country truly means.
Prior to the event, Karen Belcher, WTA president, explained how the organization aimed to honor Sgt. Kevin White, a 2006 graduate of WACS who was killed in action last year while serving his country.
Sgt. Kevin White’s family members gather at the Sgt. Kevin White Memorial Veterans’ Wall of Honor shortly after its unveiling?Thursday.
Photo by Roger Coda
Sgt. Kevin White’s family members: Stephen White, brother; Paul, father; Patricia, mother; David, brother; and Kim, sister-in-law, are pictured following the dedication Thursday.
Photo by Roger Coda
"The focus of the wall was really on Kevin, and it just grew from there. The Sgt. Kevin White Memorial Veterans' Wall of Honor is designed to honor the names of all Westfield graduates who served, and recognize any of them who were killed in action," said Belcher. "It started with Sgt. Kevin White, and then we naturally started asking ourselves 'How many other veterans are graduates, especially those who were killed in action as part of their service are there that haven't been recognized?' We wanted everyone to be included, so it really has become bigger than just your typical birdbath in the garden or stone by the flagpole."
With a large outpouring from the Westfield community, including current active duty service men and women, to World War II veterans, it was evident that many grateful hands were part of the creation of the wall.
"The WTA sponsored this, but it's really the actions of many people that made this possible: school organizations such as our Westwinds and Ape-Men groups; our school's Builder's Club; the Key Club; obviously our administration and school board have been supportive and especially the community," said Belcher. "It has been very important to us as teachers, and for the community and school to recognize our students in such a fitting tribute."
Retired shop and agricultural teacher Phil Baideme, a veteran and a father to military servants crafted the wall, and all engraving was provided by Smith & Smith.
Before the unveiling of the wall, the audience listened to the touching words delivered by U.S. Army Reserve Staff Sgt. Victor Sorrento - a 2003 graduate of Westfield and a close personal friend of White's.
"Two years after I graduated from Westfield, I joined the Army and it was the best decision I could've made," said Sorrento. "There are many things I've learned in my life but the one thing that I've taken away from my Army service that stands out to me is the idea of selfless service. By accepting our service as military personnel, we sacrifice many of the everyday activities, as well as leave our loved ones behind; we leave our homes, our comforts, our lifestyles in the rearview mirror. But those are the things we give up when we sign up to preserve our country."
He reflected on his mentoring of Kevin, and his own younger brother Joshua who was a friend and classmate of White's and who also joined military service.
"Kevin White was a much loved individual and was dedicated to serving his country," said Sorrento. "I couldn't be more proud of my friend, and of my brother. When Kevin and my brother joined, I will always recall the jokes we traded and the questions they had for me - he was truly a great kid and a great soldier.
"Volunteering to serve this great nation is something that few people do. Our military force makes up .5 percent of the population. That's a small number of people. But such a small percentage makes up the world's strongest military force."
Having served in operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, Sorrento went on to note "The support from back home and the support of fellow Americans plays a big part of our service. This dedication on this special day shows the local support for the military and the families who are left behind. It honors those who have made sacrifices, and those who have made the ultimate sacrifice."
The White family, represented by Kevin's parents Paul and Patty White; brothers David and Stephen; and David's wife Kim, were moved by the event.
"This was very heartwarming and touching," said Patty White. "I'm very glad to see that he will not be forgotten, nor will anyone else be forgotten."
The Whites, along with many who attended were particularly moved by the expertly chosen musical selections, each with relevance to military sacrifice, performed by the high school band (directed by Helen Ihasz); the Westwinds and the Ape-Men (directed by Kent Knappenberger, and including many alumni.)
The program, emceed by WTA members Jaime Wardell and Nancie Hermann, concluded with a military flag presentation by members of The Builder's Club, in which the audience was asked to rise for recognition if they or their loved ones represented a military branch. The wall unveiling and a reception followed.
The WTA reminds individuals that unlimited space is available for names of Westfield graduates who are either former military veterans, living and deceased, or active duty service members to be included on the Memorial Wall. The goal of the WTA is for the wall to grow, and each military sacrifice to be honored along with Sgt. White's. Forms are available at the school, or on the school's website, www.wacs.wnyric.org or at various establishments in town including: Patterson Library; Westfield's American Legion and VFW Posts; the Westfield Moose Lodge or Calarco's Italian Restaurant.
At present, more than 120 names make up the tangible tribute.