The Pierre Claeyssens Veterans Foundation honors service members in Fourth of July celebration
Fourth of July festivities returned to Santa Barbara Sunday as locals and visitors craned their necks skyward to see fireworks bursting over Stearns Wharf.
Lompoc held its “4th of July Spectacular” at dusk as well. Food and games accompanied the pyrotechnic display at Ryon Memorial Park.
Parades strode through Montecito and Solvang, with some of the region’s snazziest cars on display.
But the Pierre Claeyssens Veterans Foundation held a humbling celebration, placing emphasis on those who have served the country.
The foundation typically holds a parade but was not able to drive through downtown this year.
Instead, it opted to meet at the Santa Barbara Cemetery like its Memorial Day and Veterans Day events — both of which have been delayed during the pandemic.
The foundation hasn’t held an in-person event since November 2019.
“The other part that we weren’t able to do on May 31 is to honor all those veterans that are buried behind me. So I would like a little bit of thought for that because we couldn’t be here,” John Blankenship, the founding director of the Pierre Claeyssens Veterans Foundation and former Naval lieutenant, said during welcoming remarks.
Retired Navy Reserve Captain Charlie Plumb and former resident of Santa Barbara received a standing ovation before and after he spoke.
Capt. Plumb spent over 2100 days as a prisoner of war in Hanoi, Vietnam. He attributes his survival to faith.
“We survived … because we had faith. Faith in our country, faith in our flag, faith in ourselves, faith in our God. But it wasn’t always easy, that’s for sure, but we kept that patriotism alive,” he said.
He told a story about his cellmate Mike Christian, whose mind dwelled on the American Flag even throughout years of torture.
He used bamboo, rags and dust to sew the American Flag into his shirt.
When his flag was taken away and he was beaten, Mr. Christian summoned his energy to sew another flag into a new shirt.
“We used every opportunity back then to pledge our allegiance, and sometimes it was to a flag that was just an imaginary flag in a rat’s nest over in the corner of that prison,” Capt. Plumb said.
He describes pledging allegiance as vital in the prisoners’ survival and eventual success.
The 591 prisoners went home to families that expected the worst. Loved ones thought they might have to institutionalize these brave veterans — until they saw them.
“So far from 591 men, we have produced a bunch of congressmen, two United States senators, two ambassadors from our number, a vice presidential candidate, a presidential candidate, and they’re telling us today that we, the ex-POWs from Vietnam, are healthier today mentally and physically than the guys who didn’t get shot down,” Capt. Plumb said.
The message of faith and redemption read like gospel to a crowd full of veterans. They gave another standing ovation.
But Capt. Plumb noted something about the crowd: few young people were present.
“It really troubles me that the upcoming generation just doesn’t realize what it took to give us the freedoms that we enjoy,” he told the News-Press.
He hopes more young people will eventually serve the country, in whatever way they see fit.
“You don’t have to carry a gun; you don’t have to fly an airplane,” he said. “You can serve by being a Boy Scout leader or teaching a Bible course in your Sunday school.”
Col. Rob Long, United States Space Force commander of Space Launch Delta 30, also recognized the pressure on future generations. He quoted former president Ronald Regan, saying “freedom is never more than one generation from extinction.”
“Rest assured that today’s sailors, soldiers, airmen, Marines and guardians are committed to protecting and fighting for our freedoms. Serving alongside them, all veterans past and present, is my privilege,” he told the audience.
Capt. Plumb encouraged the crowd to spend time thinking about America’s heritage.
“Spend a couple of minutes remembering the people that made this possible, and not just our forefathers, men and women 250 years ago, but the people that make events like this possible,” he told the News-Press.
Despite the heavy themes of sacrifice and war, the celebration brought smiles with music from the Gold Coast Pipe Band and the Kim Collins Quartet.
Veterans stood when the pipe band played their branch’s tune, and other attendees clapped. Some veterans donned caps or badges from their time in service.
“The fact that we have all the patriotic songs, it gives everybody a good feeling of being an American,” Lt. Blankenship told the News-Press. “So everybody that ever wore the uniform should be coming to something like this.”
He noted that just 30 people came to the Memorial Day event seven years ago. In 2019, attendance escalated to 1,500 people.
The Condor Squadron flew over the crowd four times in North American AT-6 airplanes, aircraft utilized in WWII. The crowd waved at the planes and responded with oohs and ahhs, perhaps with more amazement than at a fireworks display.