GALLOWAY - Stockton University’s Office of Veterans Affairs hosted a series of events to honor veterans on Friday. The three-part ceremony was packed with inspirational remarks from college officials and veterans.
It began on the steps of the Campus Center with the display of a massive American flag and the national anthem by Stockapella.
“The American soldier represents all Americans but they are products of true patriots … They hate war more than anyone, but they will always protect our freedom at all costs. Thank you Stockton veterans for our freedom,” said Tom O’Donnell, assistant Dean of Students/Veterans Affairs, in his opening remarks.
The university was recently ranked sixth among top four-year colleges and universities for veterans in the nation by Military Times’ “Best for Vets Colleges 2017” and by the Online College Plan’s “Top 20 Best 4-Year Colleges for Veterans.”
“Six is a very great number in the military because six means we have your back. So being sixth is fine. We do have your back for veterans here at Stockton,” said O’Donnell.
Paul Garraty, president of Stockton’s Student Veterans Organization, encouraged his fellow veterans to seek out the support they need to continue moving forward.
“It is my belief that there is no greater display of patriotism and personal character than that of a person who abandons a life of comfort for a life of service to these United States,” Garraty said. “This is especially to those of you in the crowd who have served in combat and risked your very lives … All of you came home forever changed … Post-traumatic stress is often talked about when we talk about veterans, but post-traumatic growth is often never mentioned. It’s okay to be okay.”
Assemblyman Chris Brown served as the keynote speaker, and Lt. Col. Lawrence P. Stawicki, USMC, was the honored speaker.
“The servicemen and women who we honor today lived, served and sacrificed upholding the values that make our country great … Our nation is free because of the brave Americans sitting here and standing behind me and all around us today and without them, without these volunteers, who volunteered to confront our adversaries abroad so we don’t face them here at home, my hats off,” said Brown.
Stawicki encouraged those in attendance to reflect on the sacrifices of all veterans as far back as the American Revolution. He said there are currently more than 24 million veterans living in the United States, making up less than 10 percent of the population in America.
“You are brothers and sisters in arms and now a member of an elite group,” he told the veterans in attendance. “One of the best things about being a veteran is you never have to explain to anyone why you weren’t.”
The ceremony moved from the steps of the center to Independence Plaza where Stockton veteran graduates addressed the crowd with the backdrop of a two-story mural of the Declaration of Independence.
“I came to Stockton, and it was open arms. I didn’t realize how veteran-friendly they were,” said Robert Sisler, US Army and Stockton Student Veterans Organization alumni.
“Everything that Stockton has done has gotten me to where I am now,” said Nelson Gonzalez, SVO alumni who currently works with the Catholic Charities Homeless Veterans Program.
The event transitioned to Veterans Park for a wreath laying ceremony, Taps, another song from Stockapella and remarks from Robert Cannon, retired Chief Warrant Officer, USMA.
“What is a veteran? A veteran is a man or a woman who took an oath to sacrifice everything for the rest of us,” said Cannon. “There was a chance every day that they could be called upon to sacrifice their lives willingly without reservation to enforce the freedoms we enjoy today. We remember our fallen heroes with love, honor and respect. We hope the last thought of those veterans who died in battle were peaceful. We want to be reassured that they died knowing what a difference they made to each and every one of us.”
The Veterans Day program closed with a luncheon, reflections from the public and recognition of Warrior Champion Essay winners Brittany Hayes in first place and Marissa Luca and Alexis Propovitch, who tied for second place.