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December 15, 2019

Jamie Taylor/river news

Wisconsin Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, at podium, was one of the guest speakers at a Veterans Day ceremony held Monday, Nov. 11 at the Oneida County Courthouse. Also speaking at the ceremony were Wisconsin Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Mary Kolar, State Sen. Tom Tiffany and Rhinelander attorney and U.S. Navy veteran Brian Bennett.
Jamie Taylor/river news

Wisconsin Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, at podium, was one of the guest speakers at a Veterans Day ceremony held Monday, Nov. 11 at the Oneida County Courthouse. Also speaking at the ceremony were Wisconsin Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Mary Kolar, State Sen. Tom Tiffany and Rhinelander attorney and U.S. Navy veteran Brian Bennett.
11/14/2019 7:30:00 AM
Lt. Gov., state VA official speak at courthouse Veterans Day ceremony

Jamie Taylor
River News Reporter

As is tradition, a crowd assembled at the Oneida County Courthouse on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month to observe Veterans Day.

Due to cold weather, this year's ceremony took place inside the courthouse rather than on the courthouse lawn.

"A couple months ago, I was informed that Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes and Wisconsin Department of Veterans Affairs (WDVA) secretary Mary Kolar planned on attending three different Veterans Day ceremonies throughout the state," explained Oneida County Veterans Service Officer Tammy Javenkoski. "Our ceremony was one of the ones selected, although I'm sure there was a little regret when they learned it was going to be held outside."

Javenkoski credited the idea of relocating the ceremony inside "when the weather didn't cooperate" to a suggestion from her predecessor Cindy Pitts.

In his speech, Barnes, on behalf of the entire state, thanked all the veterans in attendance for their service.

"As a Wisconsinite and a grandson of a World War II veteran, I am forever grateful for the sacrifice that was made to ensure the freedom of our nation and to fight to protect our way of life," Barnes said. "Today we honor millions of men and women of all kinds for their service and dedication to our nation. We thank those who unselfishly placed their lives on the line for all of our freedoms. It's their service and sacrifice that has kept and continues to keep our country safe and free."

He noted that veterans come from "diverse backgrounds" but have one mission.

"They all come together for one common goal, and that is to protect this nation, to defend this country, to defend our honor," the lieutenant governor said.

Barnes noted that Veterans Day was once known as Armistice Day, and observed on the anniversary of the end of World War I "on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month" to honor those who served in that war. Later, the name was changed to honor all who had served in the uniform of our country.

"There are more than 345,000 military veterans living right here in the state of Wisconsin," Barnes said. "And today, we recognize not only their military service, but also the sacrifices that they - as well as their families - have made for all of us."

As a society, we must make sure that those who have served in the past, those coming home now and those who will returning to civilian life in the future are properly cared for, he added.

"It's often known as the most difficult part of their service. And it is time that we as a community, and as an administration, come together and do everything we can to support them," Barnes said. "And Gov. (Tony) Evers has proclaimed this past week as Veterans Recognition Week, and the entire month of November as Military Family Month. This is a time when we not only recognize those who wear or have worn the uniform for their selflessness and patriotism to our nation, it is also a time when we honor the sacrifices again that are made by the families of veterans and active service members throughout our great nation."

Barnes said that he and Evers have been so inspired by all the stories of veterans that they are working to include permanent state funding for the WDVA's Veterans Outreach and Recovery Program with $1.45 million in the state budget.

"When Gov. Evers signed the budget into law, the Veterans Outreach and Recovery Program is now a permanent program in all 72 counties, enabling veterans in urban and rural communities alike, he said.

Barnes said this was the largest increase in funding to veterans programs in the state's history.

"And we know that no one, especially those who risked their lives for the sake of our way of living, deserves to have their world disregarded," he said. "For our veterans, we have to continue to work together, all in their behalf, to advocate to provide the finest programs and benefits possible as a simple thank you."

Kolar, who retired in 2008 at the rank of captain after a 28-year Navy career, was the next speaker to show her appreciation for her fellow veterans.

"On Veterans Day, we display our gratitude for all American veterans of all conflicts, war and times of peace for their service to our nation," Kolar said. "So many have sacrificed so much on behalf of our country. And their determination has preserved our nation through the toughest of times. Military service is a critical strength of our country. Throughout our nation's history, men and women have put on a uniform to protect the values and liberties our nation was built on."

She also noted that service doesn't end when a veteran takes off the uniform.

"Service is appropriately the theme of this year's Veterans Day," Kolar said. "I encourage you to take a moment today to reflect and think about what that term - service - means to you. It could be volunteering a few hours at one of our three veterans homes here in our state to make the day of one of the veterans that live there. Or it could be supporting a particular cause, or taking up a service project in your community. There is no shortage of ways we can fulfill our commitment to service. And it doesn't apply only to veterans, either. If everyone in our country took a few brief moments to pay it forward through service to others in our community, we will certainly keep alive the spirit of unity and compassion."

Serving the veterans and their families "is a duty that has no political affiliation," she added.

Kolar also quoted Staff Sgt. David Bellavia, the first living recipient of the Congressional Medal of Honor from the Iraq War.

"Following the Medal of Honor ceremony at the White House, Sergeant Bellavia spoke of the importance of putting aside our differences to do what is right for our country and our veterans," Kolar said. "He said, 'when you look at a dog tag, there is basic information on there, and political party is not a part of it.' All throughout our history, we have had people who have dissented and have disagreed, and we have found ways to put everything aside and focused on what is best for the nation, what's best for mission success."

She asked that those who have never served in combat look toward those who have for the wisdom that is the true definition of the word service.

"Multiple times in our nation's history, we have experienced the world drastically change around us. Our armed forces have had to adapt to the changes. But the courage, the pride, the bravery of the men and women who left the comfort and safety of their homes and made it their duty to defend our American ideas while sacrificing so much in the process remains constant," she said.

Kolar noted that as Americans gather in ceremonies like the one held at the courthouse, there are tens of thousands of men and women in all of the armed forces serving around the world continuing the sacrifices of those who served before them.

"We must continue welcoming home military veterans with open arms in our communities," Kolar said. "Let's ensure that we are there for them during times of need, and fulfill our collective commitment to serve, on Veterans Day and every day, those who serve our country to be assured that we are here to serve them."

State Senator and candidate for U.S. House of Representatives Tom Tiffany was the next to speak.

"Today we have the privilege to honor the patriots who provided the highest service any person in our nation can offer," Tiffany said. "They put on the uniform and they put their lives on the line so that the rest of us might live in a better, more free country. Today we join together to honor a debt that we can never fully repay."

Tiffany agreed with Kolar that those who have worn the uniform continue to volunteer their time even after they leave the service, something he said he has seen many times in his travels throughout the state Senate district.

"I commented on this to a veteran friend of mine one time, and his response was perfect: 'Here in America, we take care of our own,'" he said.

One way to honor the men and women who have served the country in times of peace and war is "to be there and support them every step of the way, show them that we, as a country, are worthy of the sacrifices that they made," Tiffany continued. "I look across the crowd and I see familiar faces and I know that we owe it to them."

He also mentioned the steps that state government has taken to make sure that Wisconsin's veterans have the support they need.

"We have some of the highest rated veterans homes in the country, including the Chippewa Falls home that serves the northwestern part of the state," he said. "I just talked to a veteran from Ashland County this past weekend, and he is so appreciative that northwestern Wisconsin is now covered by a modern facility with 72 rooms so that they do not have to travel as far for care."

He noted that companies across the state make it a point to employ veterans, and many training opportunities are available to those who have served. The recently expanded Veterans Outreach and Recovery Program is intended to help at-risk veterans. The state also has a property tax credit for veterans and their surviving spouses to help make home ownership more affordable.

"In short, over the last decade, we have endeavored in Wisconsin to support our veterans," Tiffany said.

He then reflected on the documents the founding fathers drafted that gave rise to this nation following the Revolutionary War.

"They talk about freedom, they talk about freedom frequently. But they just as often talk about liberty, and there is a distinction," Tiffany said. "To me, liberty is a coin, on one side is stamped freedom. And we all know about freedom, it's talked about all the time. But in order for a coin to have value, and this is what I think our veterans have fought for ever since 1776. On the flip side is stamped accountability, and that is what is at the heart of American greatness. It is what gives that coin of liberty value. You can own that freedom if you are accountable for preserving that freedom. And the veterans of the United States of America have done that."

Rhinelander attorney Brian Bennett, a U.S. Navy veteran, was the last speaker.

"When you think about it, being a veteran is not an aspiration or goal," Bennett said. "I mean, there are kids that dream about being a Marine or a fighter pilot someday, but what they don't know is that it is just a weird job that they are going to have for a couple years before they go on and live their life as a veteran."

During one particular shipboard deployment, Bennett said he struck up a conversation with a Judge Advocate General officer, who suggested that he consider becoming an attorney.

"Me? I basically dropped out of college. I had little, if no direction in my life," Bennett said. "And despite how it seemed at the time, eventually life led me to where I am today."

He said the multitude of "weird jobs" that those in the military perform give them a unique perspective on life, and the problems they will face when they transition back into civilian life.

He said people have become veterans for many reasons, be it through the draft or the rush to enlist after the attacks on Pearl Harbor or 9-11. Some entered military service during peacetime to "join the Navy and see the world."

For Bennett, peacetime lasted all of two weeks before Iraq invaded Kuwait.

"So, as usual, my timing was awful," he joked.

He said the first Gulf War gave America an opportunity to re-examine how the country had treated those who had fought in and around Vietnam and the neglect, abuse and disdain they suffered.

"The men who came back from Vietnam were often treated like outcasts," Bennett said. "Often when a veteran had issues, you'd sometimes hear 'he hasn't been right since he got back from Vietnam.' And there was some truth to that, I'm sure. But the Gulf War was our reset button."

He said when he returned from the Gulf to Norfolk in March 1991, "we were greeted by a parade that hadn't been seen since World War II."

"Tugboats were spraying red, white and blue water all over the place," Bennett recalled. "The Chesapeake Bay was filled with hundreds of private boats streaming patriotic colors and thousands of people lined the bridges and roads to see us come home. It was, in a word, remarkable. And we all felt something as a nation that we hadn't felt in a very long time: gratitude. Gratitude for a job well done, and gratitude for soldiers, sailors and Marines all over the U.S."

Over time, the country began to see veterans differently and started supporting them, he continued.

"So for all the gratitude that you express to us today, let me express our thanks to you. An inexcusable error was made after Vietnam, and this country fixed it. Like so many others who came before me and so many who will come after, my service is a second chance at life," he concluded.

Jamie Taylor may be reached via email at jamie@rivernews

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