The Resident is proud to present the full transcript of Admiral Richard P. Breckenridge’s speech at the ribbon cutting ceremony of the American Legion Veterans Housing apartment in Jewett City.
Late last summer, a remarkable thing was happening in Jewett City.
If you were transported in time to the corner of Main Street and Slater Avenue, on the morning of August 29th, nothing out of the ordinary would have caught your attention. The streets hummed quietly with morning traffic, and people walked in and out of the open doors of local businesses. Like on any other day, you could get a cup of coffee, a newspaper, a tank of gasoline, or a piece of pie. Or you could just roll into town and look out the windows while you idled at the traffic light, convince yourself there was nothing extraordinary happening here, and move on.
But that was the amazing part. The day before, hurricane Irene barreled through New England, uprooting trees and homes and lives. The sixth-most damaging storm in US history did not spare this area from its fury. There was no lucky break for this town, and the same awful storm that blazed a path of destruction and misery up the coast, leaving hundreds dead, thousands homeless, and hundreds of thousands in the dark for weeks ripped through the streets of Jewett City…..
And 24 hours later…, the lights were on, and Jewett City was an oasis in the desert of Irene’s aftermath. For weeks after, the glow in the sky was the lights of Jewett City, where you could fill your gas tank, do your banking, visit a church or stock up at a store. The lights stayed on, and for the storm-battered area refugees, Jewett City was the safe port…the sheltered place that seemed, for a little while, like everybody’s home town.
And It wasn’t by luck, or by accident. It was by commitment, planning, and hard work for in Jewett city, the local utility company is owned and operated by the town, serving its 2500 customers with a dedicated staff of… three people. And being small and nimble had many advantages when it came time to get ready for the hurricane, and to quickly recover afterwards. But more fundamentally, the hard decisions, years of planning, and generosity of spirit and dedicated service is what made the city shine in the darkness like a lighthouse on a dark and unfamiliar shore.
Today, the hard winds of another storm are reaching our coast again, but this is not a storm of nature’s making.
Throughout our recent history, the Nation’s best have answered the call to serve. From the beaches of Normandy to the frozen banks of Chosin Reservoir, from the steaming Mekong Delta to the dusty streets of Fallujah. In every generation, when our country sounded the horn to muster the troops, they answered with selfless sacrifice and unwavering purpose. They took to the seas and skies and distant lands, and prevailed as uniformed ambassadors of American resolve. They fought like lions, and were as feared in combat as they were respected in peace. There was no greater friend than an American service member…and no more dreadful enemy.
The reasons why so many fought so hard are as varied as the men and women themselves. Some for patriotism, and others for honor. Some for love of their country, and others for their families. But I think it is fair to say that universally, everybody fought for their home. That when they fought, it was for the streets they lived on, the fields and forests and valleys and shores and towns that they loved. And we honor them today with the rare title of Veteran; a proud name that only one in 12 Americans bears.
Many can’t come home. They rest where they fell, in France and Tunisia, Belgium and Italy, in the ocean depths, in the jungles of Vietnam and the forests of Korea. And we honor them with quiet places and rows of stone, with names carved on black marble and battles etched on gleaming bronze, and flags flapping in the wind at half-mast.
But many did come home. They stand in your communities; leaders and mentors and citizens. They sit at your tables, coach your children, and lead your churches, schools and businesses. And we honor them with parades and ceremonies, with yellow ribbons and simple thank-yous.
But the sad truth is that some of our brothers and sisters have not found their way fully home. Some never had one, before they answered the Call. Others lost what they had while fighting far away. Many carry their unending war inside their head, and find that while home may still be there, they can’t hear it or see it through the battle that rages in their minds.
Still others find no job, and no hope, and therefore no home to take them in. How do we honor them. how do we honor these very special fellow americans?
Tonight, 67,000 proud Veterans, one in every four homeless people, sleep on America’s streets. By the end of this year, twice that many Veterans will have been homeless for part of the year. Half are Vietnam Veterans, compounding the shame of the country’s bitter division during that conflict. A growing portion of homeless Veterans are from our most recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, with women representing 5% of the rapidly rising total.
Tonight, 365 more Veterans go on the streets. The storm is here, and it’s real.
But ten years ago, the people here in jewett city began an amazing journey to get ready for it. An off-hand answer to the question of what to do with the empty rooms at the American Legion literally transformed the facility, energized the community, and drew a grass-roots passion from many organizations and donors to blossom into a first-ever innovative approach to tackling homelessness among Veterans. The people and organizations honored here today did not “address” the issue. They did not study it in committee. They did not write point papers or editorials, or produce multi-colored presentations. Instead, they declared War.
The citizens of Jewett City drew a line in the sand, and declared that the scourge of homelessness among Veterans may rage elsewhere, unchecked and unanswered, but not here. Not in their streets, not on their watch.
Bill Czmyr and his allies, like any Council of Generals, built a patient strategy for the long battle. It must have seemed, in the early days, as if there would never be a way to sustain the enthusiasm, get the details right, find the money, and overcome the thousands of obstacles that go along with a major campaign. It must have seemed like there would be dark days of phone calls unreturned, emails unanswered. It must have seemed like the battles would never be won, and the war would never end.
But the Call went out, and the people answered. With grants and funding directly supported by Congressman Courtney, with loans and permits, with shovels and sweat, the tide of battle turned. After all, this was Total War, where every element of the community was energized. The American Legion donated space and property. State and Federal government representatives located funding and programs to assist. A local hotel donated furniture. In a true “Joint Operation”, when one hotel group in Waterford donated oversized curtains, local Women’s Groups from Danielson and Plainfield hand-tailored them to fit the rooms.
It was not done for glory, or money or fame. It was done for the most powerful motives of compassion, and a sincere desire to render well-deserved honor, and a sense of quiet resolve but utter commitment to address a moral outrage. I was deeply inspired by simple remarks made by your own Burgess Geer in a newspaper interview talking about restoring the war memorial plaques in Fanning Park. He said, “The bronze is going to shine the way bronze should shine.” That has a deeper meaning when we talk about Veterans. A metal that is heated white-hot and forged for strength, that was made to last, that served its purpose with enduring commitment does not deserve to be cast aside or forgotten. It should shine the way it was meant to shine. President John Kennedy told us that a nation reveals itself not only by the men and women it produces but also by the men and women it honors and remembers. If that is so, then the men and women who fought for this day are cut from the same cloth of honor and dedication and sacrifice as those they choose to serve.
Ten years later, the glow in the sky of the dark night comes from the newest jewel of Jewett City, the American Legion Veteran’s Housing Initiative. It guides our storm-tossed brothers and sisters to safe shores. It says to them, “Here, we give honor to ALL veterans, of all wars and all times. Here, the words Homeless and Veteran are not spoken in the same sentence. Here, we who live our lives at home Free and Safe because of the sacrifices of others, we reach out our hands and our hearts to those who have lost their way. Here, in Jewett City, the lights are on and the doors are open, and for a little while or forever, we Welcome you Home.”