Speakers, bands, choir and color guard participate in ceremony at Santa Barbara Cemetery
When the Prime Time Band of Santa Barbara played “God Bless America,” some audience members couldn’t help but sing along at the Santa Barbara Cemetery.
And far up in the sky, the sound and sight of freedom continued with the Condor Squadron soaring above the large audience of civilians, veterans and active military personnel who gathered on Veterans Day.
The Pierre Claeyssens Veterans Foundation and Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 1649 led a ceremony at the picturesque Montecito cemetery, under a blue sky and against the backdrop of mountains.
In that setting, the Santa Barbara Choral Society sang favorites such as the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” and “Shenandoah.” The Gold Coast Pipe Band performed selections such as “Green Hills” and “The Su Gan Set.”
Later came “Taps,” played by Howard Hudson on his bugle.
The choral society sang “America the Beautiful,” and the Prime Time Band played the “March of the Armed Forces,” during which veterans from various branches of the service stood and were recognized.
It was definitely a morning of patriotic music, including a powerful rendition of the national anthem by retired Santa Barbara police Sgt. David Gonzales.
It was also a morning of symbolic actions and heartfelt words. The Color Guard from the UCSB ROTC (Surfrider Battalion) presented the colors. Lt. j.g. Christina Sandstedt of the U.S. Coast Guard led the Pledge of Allegiance, and retired Chaplain Jerry Gray of the U.S. Air Force delivered the invocation.
And the master of ceremonies — Lt. John Blankenship, a former Navy pilot and the co-founding director of the Pierre Claeyssens Veterans Foundation — talked about a hero.
Lt. Blankenship told the audience about the heroic actions that retired U.S. Air Force Col. Phil Conran took to save his fellow troops in Laos during the Vietnam War — actions that led Col. Conran to receive the Air Force Cross.
“Phil is probably the most highly decorated man in the Tri-counties,” Lt. Blankenship said as he finished introducing the ceremony’s keynote speaker.
Col. Conran started his speech on a light note, explaining that when he was stationed in Hawaii, he and other football fans had to watch NFL games at 8 or 9 on a Sunday morning because of the time difference with the rest of the U.S. He said the chaplain was also eager to watch the football games, so instead of a long sermon, he delivered one-sentence homilies.
“Those one-sentence homilies last a long time,” Col. Conran said. “One was: ‘Be kind to your neighbor.’ That means a lot. If you’re kind to your neighbor, your neighbor may be kind back to you. If a nation is kind to fellow nations, there may be peace.”
Col. Conran promised he would deliver a one-line homily, but first he wanted to discuss the Santa Barbara Cemetery and the challenges faced by active duty military personnel and veterans.
“Santa Barbara Cemetery is over 150 years old. They have Civil War veterans buried here, Union and Confederate,” Col. Conran said. “There are over 5,000 veterans buried in this cemetery.
“I think we should thank the cemetery staff for the fantastic job that they do, for allowing us to have this setting,” said Col. Conran, with the mountains behind him and the cemetery’s big, grassy hills around the audience. “As John Blankenship said (during his opening remarks), this is paradise.
“The second subject I want to talk about is the armed forces,” Col. Conran said.
“We have 1.5 million men and women defending our country. That includes active duty, national guards, reserves,” he said. “That is less than one-half of 1% of the population. Think about that. Less than one-half of 1 percent of the population is defending the country.
“And I personally don’t feel it’s enough,” he said.
“Needless to say, there isn’t much that we can do about that in the near term,” Col. Conran said. “I think we should think about the warriors serving our country.
“They have gone to places most of us have never even heard of,” Col. Conran said.
He noted that back during the Vietnam War, most troops served one tour of duty, then returned to the U.S. But during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, troops had to go on several tours of duty, and Col. Conran said they’ve paid an emotional price for that.
“There is a problem with going back and forth, back and forth, from civilian peace time living to wartime conditions. I think it is wearing on the minds of our younger veterans,” Col. Conran said. “They are going back and forth three, four, five, six, seven times.
“We have 20 suicides a day in the military,” Col. Conran said. “As a matter of fact, this morning, I heard it was 22 a day.”
He stressed the need to help today’s veterans, to do something more than simply say, “Thank you for your service.”
“Let’s think about that in the coming weeks and see if we can do something to support these young warriors we have on active duty and the warriors who are retired or out of service,” Col. Conran said.
Then as promised, Col. Conran delivered his one-line homily: “Let us be the rainbow for those veterans who are still living in the clouds.”
In that spirit, the ceremony continued with more patriotic music, including the choral society’s performance of “Tribute to the Armed Forces” and the Prime Time Band playing “Hallelujah.”
Said Chaplain Gray during his invocation, “May no veteran ever feel forgotten.”