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Amherst honors veterans with downtown ceremony

  • Marine veterans Colleen Cauley, left, and Tom Coogan, joined by Army veterans Juan Perez and Paul Clevenger, right, take part in Amherst's Veterans Day program on the Common on Sunday.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING

    Marine veterans Colleen Cauley, left, and Tom Coogan, joined by Army veterans Juan Perez and Paul Clevenger, right, take part in Amherst's Veterans Day program on the Common on Sunday.
    KEVIN GUTTING Purchase photo reprints »

  • Amherst Town Manager John Musante, second from right, attends the Veterans Day program on the Common on Sunday.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING

    Amherst Town Manager John Musante, second from right, attends the Veterans Day program on the Common on Sunday.
    KEVIN GUTTING Purchase photo reprints »

  • Navy veteran John Janse takes part in the color guard for Amherst's Veterans Day program on the Common on Sunday.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING

    Navy veteran John Janse takes part in the color guard for Amherst's Veterans Day program on the Common on Sunday.
    KEVIN GUTTING Purchase photo reprints »

  • Marine veteran Tom Coogan, of Florence, left, joined by Army veteran Juan Perez, sings the national anthem as the flag is raised on the Amherst Common during the Veterans Day program on Sunday.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING

    Marine veteran Tom Coogan, of Florence, left, joined by Army veteran Juan Perez, sings the national anthem as the flag is raised on the Amherst Common during the Veterans Day program on Sunday.
    KEVIN GUTTING Purchase photo reprints »

  • Marine veterans Colleen Cauley, left, and Tom Coogan, joined by Army veterans Juan Perez and Paul Clevenger, right, take part in Amherst's Veterans Day program on the Common on Sunday.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING
  • Amherst Town Manager John Musante, second from right, attends the Veterans Day program on the Common on Sunday.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING
  • Navy veteran John Janse takes part in the color guard for Amherst's Veterans Day program on the Common on Sunday.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING
  • Marine veteran Tom Coogan, of Florence, left, joined by Army veteran Juan Perez, sings the national anthem as the flag is raised on the Amherst Common during the Veterans Day program on Sunday.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING

Victor A. Nuñez Ortiz, a student at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and former Marine who served in Iraq, addressed the crowd gathered to honor veterans in Amherst Sunday, describing efforts to assist those returning from battle.

Nuñez, vice president and director of Veterans Advocacy Services, which guides military veterans through the process of claiming benefits from the federal Veterans Administration, said he helped found the organization because he became “deeply concerned about the way veterans were treated when they came home.” Those who served found it difficult to access services through the VA, he said.

Some veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars suffer brain injuries, which he termed “the signature injury” of modern combat, at higher rates than previously, he said. Veterans are committing suicide at a rate of 18 a day, he added. They also suffer from substance abuse, homelessness, unemployment and the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder, he said. Veterans Advocacy Services “shields them from the bureaucracy” that can prove frustrating and helps them get what they need, Nuñez said. “We deserve nothing less.”

Nuñez said he came to the United States at age 7 when his family fled the civil war in his native El Salvador.

“I knew no English and my family was poor,” he recalled. After joining the Marines, Nuñez served five years, including deployment as a combat engineer in Iraq.

Upon his return, he became involved in Veteran Education Project, an Amherst nonprofit that encourages military veterans to share their personal stories with students in local schools.

“It helped me heal,” he said, noting that veterans “come home to a nation that doesn’t understand what they’ve been through.”

Terry Fenstad of Amherst, a retired U.S. Air Force colonel, was master of ceremonies during the 45-minute event that attracted about 40 people to the Town Common.

Fenstad, who is commander of American Legion Post 148 in Amherst, pointed out that fewer Americans join the military today and serve in combat than ever before. He said 11.2 percent of eligible men joined the service during World War II, 4.3 percent joined during the Vietnam War and fewer than half a percent have served in the global war on terror since 2001.

“Veterans Day is really one of our most important holidays,” Stephanie O’Keeffe, chair of the Amherst Select Board, told the gathering.

“We are in our 11th year of war in Afghanistan,” added Town Manager John Musante, “We hope (all those serving there) will be home soon.”

The ceremony concluded when Fenstad and Colleen Cauley of Amherst, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran and now a graduate student at UMass and commander of VFW Post 754 on Main Street, raised the American flag from half mast to full staff as Sue Dunbar, who teaches music to Amherst elementary students, played the national anthem on trumpet.

Two of the eldest veterans in attendance were Tom Coogan of Florence, 91, a Marine veteran of World War II and Korea, and Bob Joy of Amherst, 81, who served in the U.S. Air Force during the Korean War.

Information about Veterans Advocacy Services is available at www.veteransadvocacyservices.org.

Etta Walsh can be reached at ewalsh.gazette@gmail.com

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