Story by Katie Drake, Photos by Andy McEvoy

On a chilly morning, Thursday, November 11th, over 150 people gathered in Eastern Park at the Veterans Memorial for a service honoring anyone and everyone who has served. There was a great turnout of young folks in the crowd and as we’d soon learn, a special honoree among us.

Donnie Bronson led off the ceremony by welcoming everyone, and said, “It is just wonderful to see such a large crowd, especially the kids, who we love to see here, and we hope one day you are up here.”

Members of the American Legion and VFW Post, George Clingen and Peter Atutis had the honor of laying the wreath on the monument and as the crowd fell silent you could hear the flags snapping in the breeze behind them. A stark reminder, of how it sounds to be brave.

“We welcome all and any Veterans. Don’t ever be afraid to ask a Veteran for help! If you need something in the community, don’t be afraid to ask someone from the Legion or the VFW. We will be there to help if we can.”

Mayor Mark Blask gave a thoughtful and meaningful speech, “Thank you all for coming today. It’s a hugely important day.”

“Where did it all start? 102 years ago. President Wilson, the War to end all wars, that was supposed to be the last war. There have been four wars since then. World War II, Korea, Vietnam, the Gulf War, and just last month the hostilities in Afghanistan finally ended. This is the first time in a long time that we have gotten together on Veterans Day that we were not in the middle of a war, fighting overseas. We are grateful for the Veterans who have served and those who are ready to take on the next challenge.“

Mayor Blask continued, “The first Veteran was probably from the Revolutionary War, and raised their hand and said, ‘I will fight!’ The most recent Veteran probably signed up this yesterday, maybe this morning. In an uncertain world, an 18-year-old walked into a recruiting office and signed a piece of paper, and said ‘Pick Me. I’m ready!’ It is an unbelievable selfless act. Only 3% of Americans have served, but 3% of a lot is still a lot.”

“Veterans Day is such an important day. We meet here twice a year. In May for Memorial Day, a somber day to think about those who laid down their lives for their country. Veterans Day is a happy day, it’s rejoiceful. We honor those who’ve served. Thank you to the American Legion and the VFW for putting this on every year. One of the best things is seeing the youngsters and all of you who took the time because it meant something to you. And it means something to us.”

A special honoree.

Mayor Blask then surprised the crowd with a personal, local honoree. He said, “Just last month, six weeks ago, someone from Little Falls retired from the service. He was a fellow Navy Man, who will probably not be particularly happy I’m calling him up here. I think it’s important to recognize the service of my friend Chief Petty Officer John Gonzalez. Just last week we had a flag that was flown over the Capitol in his honor. So, we have a flag that we would love to present to Chief Petty Officer John Gonzalez.”

Everyone applauded, the crowd parted, and a surprised Gonzalez walked between his friends and neighbors. We all stood a little taller and were just a little prouder that we had a brave local hero among us, who chose Little Falls to live and raise his family.

Blask then invited John’s wife Beth and their three children, Ben, Mia, and Lucas to join them. Beth wasn’t surprised, because she helped to orchestrate this with Mayor Blask and surprise her husband. Mayor Blask said, “This is a family deal right from the beginning. It is my absolute honor to present this to Chief Petty Officer John Gonzalez. He served 20 years in the Navy. He was in Special Warfare, that’s pretty much all we talk about at that point and move on to something else.” He paused before continuing, “This man is a hero!” The audience applauded loudly at the conclusion of the service and Mr. Bronson invited everyone down to the Legion for some refreshments.

Happy Veterans Day to all those who have been brave enough to serve, and Thank You for your service to our great country.