NORTH ANDOVER — American pride reigned supreme on the Old Center Common on Saturday as the Field of Honor, a massive display of American flags, reached its final day with a ceremony attended by several hundred people.
This patriotic demonstration was organized by the Exchange Club of Lawrence. One of the club's missions is the promotion of patriotism and respect for the Stars and Stripes.
For the past week, hundreds of flags have stood on the common, each one purchased in memory or in honor of someone who has served or is serving the country and/or the community. Many of the flags were placed in memory of people who were killed while serving in the United States Armed Forces.
The names of the people honored by the nearly 350 flags were read aloud near the end of the ceremony. Several flags were purchased in memory of Cpl. Sean Gallagher, a son of North Andover who was one of 220 U.S. Marines killed when a terrorist drove a truck loaded with explosives into their barracks at Beirut International Airport on Oct. 23, 1983.
State Secretary of Veterans' Services Francisco Ureña, looking out over the sea of red, white and blue banners, called it "a true sight to see."
Ureña and other speakers talked about how Old Glory inspires men and women who are serving in harm's way. Ureña, a Marine veteran who was wounded in action while serving as a tank commander in Iraq, said he was greatly encouraged when he saw a large American flag flying from a Humvee.
"What a sight it was, what a motivator it was," he said.
Ureña enlisted in the Marines after he graduated from Lawrence High School. He was the first member of his class to join the Corps, he said.
"I knew from a young age I wanted to give back," Ureña said – and he tried to join the Marines when he was only 14. Ureña immigrated to the United States from the Dominican Republic with his family when he was 4.
His family "waited our turn" for years to obtain a visa to come to the United States, he said. In 1984, their moment arrived.
Ureña has made quite a career of providing services to fellow veterans. He was the veterans' services officer for Lawrence and straightened out a mess, according to John Doherty, a Vietnam War combat veteran who also spoke at the ceremony.
Then he was the veterans' services officer for Boston and since January 2015 he has been Massachusetts' secretary of veterans' services.
The culmination of the Field of Honor was attended by many veterans, including those who served in World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan and others who served between the wars. At least a few of the non-veterans who attended probably wished that they, too, could claim the honor of being veterans.
Ureña offered them an opportunity to serve, to "give back" as he desired at such a young age. The veterans' services officers employed by the state's cities and towns maintain a network of volunteers and help is always appreciated, he said.
Doherty is a graduate of Harvard University and earned his commission as a second lieutenant in the Army by completing ROTC training at that institution. Back in the 1960s, many Harvard students, seething with antiwar fervor, despised ROTC.
Nevertheless, Doherty wanted to fight in Vietnam and finally got his wish. After two combat tours, he was awarded the Bronze Star, three Purple Hearts, the Vietnamese Medal of Honor, two Vietnamese Crosses of Gallantry and two Vietnamese Wound Medals.
Doherty said that the Vietnam War "seared the heart of America." The total number of American service men and women killed in that war, generally measured at 16 years, was 58,479, he said – more than the population of North Andover and Andover combined, he noted.
The average age of American soldiers, Marines, sailors, airmen and Coast Guardsmen killed in Vietnam was 19 or 20, he said.
"They will never grow old," Doherty said – but neither will they walk a daughter down the aisle at her wedding or do the other things that most folks take for granted, he added.
"This is the cost of freedom, ladies and gentlemen," said Doherty, a former state and federal prosecutor who was the veterans' services officer for Andover until he retired.
The Rev. Kevin Deeley, pastor of St. Michael Church, was a Navy chaplain for 16 years. Joining the Navy in 1995 with the desire to serve as a chaplain "was one of the best decisions I ever made," he said.
His duties included consoling the loved ones of Marines and sailors who had died fighting the terrorist forces in Iraq. While Deeley is a Catholic priest, he said that as a chaplain, he was responsible for facilitating worship services for Marines, sailors and Coast Guard personnel of other faiths.
"We have great people in uniform," he said.
Sean Devan, president of the Exchange Club of Lawrence, said his organization decided to organize the Field of Honor every year.
"This is by popular demand," added Rick Blain, who coordinated this year's observance.