Veterans' home celebrates military branch birthdays


BENNINGTON -- Decorated military men and women at the Vermont Veterans' Home kicked off Veterans Day celebrations early, with a party honoring all branches of the military.

Service birthdays, or the days we recognize the history of our armed forces each year, will be recognized individually at the Vermont Veterans' Home going forward, said Al Faxon, chief operations officer.

Coinciding with the Marine Corps birthday, held Nov. 10, the Veterans' Home served five cakes in a ceremony to honor each of our military branches.

In full uniform, Col. Faxon, USMC (Ret.) cut the cakes with his sword, as is tradition.

"What I'm trying to do is give them more of their military traditions, here in their home," said Faxon.

Residents of the Veterans' Home represent the Army, the largest military branch, most, followed by the Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps and Coast Guard, according to Faxon.

"A lot of them have their service pictures in their rooms," said Faxon. "It's really cool to see."

With a nod to several older service members, reminiscing over cake with family and staff members, Faxon noted he was happy to be able to surprise the veterans.

Decorated walls and tables featured patriotic stars and stripes in red, white and blue, while favorite old songs played on a karaoke machine, which many sang along to.

"No matter what people forget, they never forget the words to music," said Michele Burgess, recreational director at the Veterans' Home.

Vern Aiken, 92, a tail-gunner who fought in Germany in World War II, shared photos he keeps in his pocket. Young men lined up in front of a B-17 bomber, in fading black and white.

Aiken, born in 1921, reminisced briefly over his younger years, and never mentioned the case of medals kept in his room.

"There are a lot of veterans here who have a really special history," said Faxon of the many men and several women, including Pauline Stevens, the only lady resident who was active in the Coast Guard.

Cards and ‘thank yous' were written from preschool students at Molly Stark Elementary, the beginning of another new tradition between the community organizations.

Previously, students visited on Halloween but will now also be active in Veterans Day recognitions, according to Burgess. "It's so great they're starting to do this also, the residents really appreciate it," said Burgess.

Sitting in the center of the days festivities, Wilfred (Willy) Rondeau of Stamford, and Robert (Bob) Fritz of Pownal, had both fond and dark memories of their time at war.

Rondeau, a former air transport member of the Air Force, served as ground crew for P-38 planes in the Pacific Islands during World War II.

"We took care of the airplanes," said Rondeau, summing up a detailed historical tale of his exploits in 1941, fighting against the Japanese.

Fritz spent six years in the Navy, serving in Vietnam for 13 months, from 1967 to 1968, where he was attached to a Navy Seal team.

"I built underwater mines," said Fritz. "How did I do it? Very carefully."

Both men said they were happy their children didn't follow in their footsteps.

"We went through it, we saw what it was and we didn't want our kids to have any part of it," said Rondeau.

Fritz agreed, and said he actively discouraged his son from pursuing military service.

"War is not for anybody to see. It's hell," said Fritz. "I wouldn't wish it on anyone - not my worst enemy."

Married to his wife for 45 years, since he was 23-years-old, Fritz recalled his younger years fondly despite his experiences overseas.

"Everybody wonders why we're always laughing so much," said Rondeau. "We're just happy guys."

Himself married at age 21, Rondeau spent 66 years with his late wife, and shared a photo saved to his cell phone of the woman he called "so beautiful."

"If I've gotta be away from home, this is the place to be," he said.

Veterans Day has been celebrated since 1919, when President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed Armistice Day as Nov. 11.

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