Western Mass remembers those killed in war with Memorial Day events

It’s been more than 50 years since their brothers were killed in Vietnam, but Mary Rider and Elaine Fortuna have never forgotten.

Rider’s youngest brother, Army Pfc. Robert Dowds, was killed May 5, 1970. Fortuna’s older brother, Marine Cpl. Robert R. Tolpa, was killed in 1968. On Monday, they joined in the Chicopee Memorial Day service and placed a wreath on the monument that remembers all 15 men from Chicopee killed in the war in Vietnam.

It was one of a number of events held Monday to remember fallen veterans across Western Massachusetts.

“He was a great, great brother. He would do anything he could for anyone,” Rider said.

Her brother was the youngest of six and worked part-time at Balakier’s Clothing before he joined the military, she said.

Fortuna said her brother always wanted to be a Marine and joined the military as soon as he turned 18. She was 15 when he was killed.

“He was a fun-loving jokester,” she said.

Rider said she felt she should continue to attend Memorial Day events to remember her brother after the death of her mother, who faithfully attended them. She said she always feels a connection with other Gold Star families, veterans, city officials and others who go to the events.

“It is an honor that they haven’t been forgotten,” Fortuna said.

The ceremony, held at Veterans’ Plaza off Front Street, included speeches from state Rep. Shirley Arriaga, D-Chicopee, who is a U.S. Air Force veteran; Mayor John L. Vieau and Stephanie Shaw, the city’s veterans services director. The Chicopee High School Junior Air Force ROTC joined with city veterans’ groups to bring military honors and wreaths were placed on the six monuments that honor city residents killed in different wars.

In Westfield, residents lined Elm and Broad streets for the traditional parade ending at Parker Memorial Park, where former Army Lt. Col. Cathy Martin, now a member of American Legion Post 124, described the fear she felt serving with the 5th MASH – Mobile Army Surgical Hospital – during the Gulf War in 1990 and 1991.

“For me, it was absolutely terrifying,” she said. “But we did our jobs.”

Keith Buckout, a member of the Marine Corps League Westfield River Valley Detachment 141, spent the parade waving from the back of a Humvee.

“It waxes and wanes,” he said of public turnout and attitudes. ”For a while after Vietnam, no one wanted anything to do with the military. Then there was a burst of support after the Gulf War and in the War on Terror. Now, I don’t know.”

Tracy Award winner Brian Belanger (right) approaches to place a wreath at the War on Terror monument during Chicopee’s annual Memorial Day ceremonies at Veterans Memorial Plaza. (Don Treeger / The Republican) 5/29/2023

West Springfield also held a parade, followed by a brief ceremony at the Town Commons on Park Street. Agawam held a parade and remembrance event after veterans and officials visited cemeteries and monuments across the city.

In Springfield, a Mass was said and a wreath placed at St. Michael’s Cemetery on Memorial Day. The city traditionally holds its Memorial Day remembrance on Friday in front of City Hall, where Thomas M. Baulton, director of Springfield’s department of veterans services, urged attendees to keep memories of the fallen alive.

“We love them in life as veterans, but let us not abandon them in death,” Baulton said. “If we can keep that alive, we’ve accomplished what we need to do as a country.”

Holyoke remembered its fallen at the War Memorial. Some of the other events were in East Longmeadow, Amherst, Ware, Hampden, Southwick, and Russell.

In Chicopee, Arriaga needed a moment to compose herself, saying Memorial Day can be emotional for her. She also asked for a moment of silence to remember the more than 1 million people nationwide who have been killed in wars.

“It is of the utmost importance that we remember and honor brothers and sisters in arms who paid the ultimate price not only today but every day,” Arriaga said. “I want to personally thank all the families whose lives have never been the same since they lost a loved one in service to our country.”

Shaw, an Army National Guard veteran who served as a military police officer in Afghanistan, said Memorial Day has a personal and different meaning for each person.

It reminds her of comrades who were killed. For Gold Star families, the day has a different meaning, she said.

Vieau remembered those who were killed in war and at the same time thanked all those who are serving in the military. He recognized the seven Chicopee high school seniors who have signed up to join a branch of the armed services. He urged residents to support those who are serving.

“Chicopee will forever hold their memories close to our hearts,” he said. “Remember only our individual faith and freedom can keep us free.”

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