CNJ staff photo: Tony Bullocks Rick Hidalgo, left, a Gulf War veteran, and Trini Ortiz, a Vietnam veteran, both members of American Legion Post 25, raise a flag Thursday morning at the Baxter-Curren Senior Center. The center held a breakfast in honor of those who served their country.
By Sharna Johnson: CNJ staff writer
Linda Hernandez’ voice cracked as she explained the symbolism behind an empty table setting for one at the front of the room.
Hernandez, a secretary at the Baxter-Curren Senior Center, said the table is for the service members who didn’t return from war.
“We are compelled to never forget that while we enjoy our daily pleasures, there are others that have endured and may still be enduring the agonies of pain, deprivation and internment,” she told the more than 100 people gathered Thursday morning to honor veterans at the center.
Hernandez has a son serving in the Marine Corps and has lost two family members and a friend to combat in the last four years.
“It’s hard, but they’re gone and after a while if we don’t keep their memory alive, they’re forgotten,” she said after the presentation.
Breakfast followed a presentation commemorating the service of local residents.
The centers’ Program Coordinator Brenda Hankins presented a video to attendees that flashed photos of local veterans while a narrator told the story of the 1814 shelling of Fort McHenry, the event which led Francis Scott Key to draft The Star Spangled Banner.
“What sets the American Christian apart from all others is he will die on his feet before he’ll live on his knees,” the narrator quoted President George Washington. The oration garnered rounds of applause from the gathering.
Afterwards, Hankins addressed the group.
“For the rest of my life when I sing the American anthem I will remember what price was paid for that flag,” she said.
Distinguished guests included Lee Roach and Bud Johnston, survivors of the infamous Bataan Death March.
In addition, Al Henderson and Kenneth McMahan, World War II Bronze Star recipients, were acknowledged. Henderson, 92, was recognized as the oldest veteran in attendance.
Johnston, 90, said he enjoys gathering with fellow veterans and attends as many events as he can.
“I really appreciate this, if it wasn’t for the vets we wouldn’t be free,” he said, seated with his wife Lucile. Chuckling, he said, “We’re on the endangered list.”
“When you lose you’re freedom there’s nothing you can enjoy that much,” he said.
Johnston was in a group of around 200 prisoners forced to labor in Japanese coal mines. They were held for more than three years before World War II ended and they were recovered.
“We thought about (patriotism and why we were there) all the time, he said.
Roach, 88, recalls sparse food and bad treatment as a Japanese prisoner of war. “They starved us to death nearly when they captured us,” he said.
“I’m just glad that I’m in as good a health as I am after what we went through,” he said.