Remembering our heroes |

Remembering our heroes

Presentation of the Colors by the American Legion Post 130 Color Guard, and singing the National Anthem on the left is Bren Altenbach at Grass Valley's Memorial Day celebration Monday morning.
Photo by John Hart |

Nevada County veterans, their families and members of the community gathered Monday to recognize past and current members of the United States Armed Forces, and paid tribute to those who have lost their lives in service.

More than 300 people attended the Memorial Day ceremony, which was held at the Grass Valley Veterans Memorial Building and was organized by The American Legion Frank Gallino Post 130.

The ceremony kicked off with a tribute to Norm Dodson, a local resident and Vietnam War veteran. Claude Hessel, a retired commander with the United States Coast Guard and the event’s emcee, told the audience Dodson died last October after a battle with cancer.

Representatives from several local veterans groups, including Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 535, Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 2655 and the Sierra Nevada chapter of Blue Star Mothers of America, participated in a wreath-laying ceremony.

The audience at the memorial building heard two keynote speeches from local veterans.

Brian Comte served 23 years in the United States Army, the majority of those as a medic with the Green Berets. His time in the military included tours in Haiti, Yemen and Afghanistan, as well as multiple tours in Iraq.

Those 23 years were intense, Comte told the crowd. But, he said, “I volunteered for this. Us warriors, we didn’t come into this for a soft life, a comfortable life. We knew what we were getting into.”

He spoke of the camaraderie and deep bonds between those in his unit, many of whom were lost in battle.

But the hardest part of his service, he told the audience, wasn’t his service at all.

“The scariest thing isn’t gunfire. It’s when I got back,” Comte said. “That’s what scared me.”

He recalled struggling with the effects of post traumatic stress disorder, telling the audience about a time he was pulled over by a police officer shortly after returning to civilian life; he panicked, instantly feeling the ‘fight or flight’ adrenaline rush of combat kick in.

“You can’t do 23 years of that stuff without having your head changed,” Comte said, adding he continues to work through that PTSD.

Still, Comte told the audience, he was proud to be standing before them today.

“It’s been my absolute pleasure to serve my country,” Comte said.

Dan House spent two decades as a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Air Force. He told the audience about a mission he undertook in 1989. The goal, he said, was to fly an SR-71 aircraft from Okinawa, Japan to Cam Ranh Bay in Vietnam, and back.

However, not long after takeoff, the left engine of the plane died. It was a harrowing experience as the plane started to roll to the right, and then roll to the left, House said.

“That is the most scared I have ever been in an airplane in my entire life,” he said.

Eventually, the plane’s hydraulic pressure started dropping, and House and his navigator were forced to bail out of the aircraft; they landed safely in the water, and were rescued by passing boats.

The whole experience turned out to be “a great adventure.” House said; though he noted, “I’m glad that I’m behind the podium today instead of being remembered.”

Memorial Day is “bittersweet,” he said.

“We miss the people who have left us,” House said, but “we are happy and proud and absolutely honored” to have served.

Monday’s ceremony closed with the veterans in the audience gathering around the stage as the crowd sang a service song medley. A barbecue lunch prepared by Boy Scout Troop 885 followed the ceremony.

Paula Onescu, the president of the Sierra Nevada chapter of Blue Star Mothers of America, said the day’s keynote speakers resonated with her. Onescu’s 27-year-old daughter Ashley has served in the Air Force for the past nine years.

“When I hear what they spoke about, it makes me appreciate what my child is enduring,” she said.

She called the support of the community members who attended the Memorial Day ceremony “heartfelt.”

“It shows that they understand, and are willing to come out and share this day and appreciate those who have served and are still serving,” Onescu said.

Judy Gurley, who sang ‘Battle Hymn of the Republic’ during the ceremony, said she attends the ceremony to show support for the area’s veterans, including her husband, who served in the Vietnam War.

“They need our love,” Gurley said. “They need to know, we do appreciate it.”

To contact Staff Writer Emily Lavin, email or call 530-477-4230.

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