A ‘gigantic’ gesture: Amherst’s veterans celebrated with care packages, ceremony

  • Steven Connor, director of Central Hampshire Veterans Services, right, hands a gift bag to James Rouche, a Marine veteran, on Veterans Day with Donna Depretto, left, and Jennifer Reynolds, volunteers who helped with the event honoring veterans in Amherst. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Helen MacMellon, left, director of the Amherst Senior Center, and Jake Hughes, a member of Sigma Chi fraternity at UMass, present Gigi Green, an aircraft engine medic in the Women’s Army Corps during World War II, with a gift bag in honor of her service on Veterans Day. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Staff Writer
Monday, November 22, 2021

AMHERST — Drafted to serve as an Army medic during the Vietnam War, spending two years in Texas in the mid-1960s, Ernest Weaver was honored for his service to the United States with the delivery of a care package on Veterans Day morning.

For Weaver, such recognition is a concept he once thought impossible.

“There was a long time there when people weren’t appreciated, when people didn’t appreciate veterans,” said Weaver, whose tenure in the military began just two months after he graduated from the University of Massachusetts.

“I got drafted and went and did what we were supposed to do,” Weaver said.

At the downtown home of Gigi Green, an aircraft engine medic in the Women’s Army Corps during World War II, UMass junior Jake Hughes, a member of the Sigma Chi fraternity, presented a similar goodie bag.

“This is something small to match the large sacrifice you’ve made for the country,” Hughes said as he handed Green the bag. Green thanked him for the gift, adding that her only regret in serving was that women at the time were not allowed to fly the planes.

Weaver and Green were among more than 60 veterans who received the goodie bags from the Amherst Senior Center in an effort organized by Jennifer Reynolds, the center’s administrative assistant, and supported by Helen MacMellon, the center’s interim director.

Reynolds came up with the idea of what she calls “swag bags” in 2020 on a whim when the ongoing pandemic meant that a breakfast to salute veterans couldn’t be held.

This year, with more time to organize, and recognizing that the pandemic would again prevent an in-person meal, Reynolds sought out about 10 businesses to contribute items, including the Amherst Farmers Supply, the Mill District and Bueno y Sano. Inside the packages are gift cards, hand warmers, gloves, masks, toothbrushes, candy and a veterans “blue book” that provides information about resources available.

Reynolds also solicited help from her friends, volunteers at the center and UMass fraternity and sorority members from Sigma Chi and Alpha Epsilon Phi.

“I want this to be a positive event and to thank veterans for their service,” Reynolds said.

MacMellon said it was natural for UMass students to play a role. “So many of our seniors appreciate seeing their young faces,” MacMellon said. “They love getting visits from young people.”

Before they ventured out from the Bangs Community Center, Town Manager Paul Bockelman told the students that showing up on the doorsteps with the care packages would be “gigantic” for the town’s veterans.

“Your presence, your youth, your willingness to do this is very powerful,” Bockelman said.

One veteran who came to the Bangs, James Roche, a self-described Marine for life whose active service ran from 1959 to 1965, got his care package from Steve Connor, director of Central Hampshire Veterans Services.

Roche said he is pleased to see that the community recognizes those who have served. He recalled returning home and being criticized, and even spat on, for being part of the military.

“It’s getting better,” Roche said. “They certainly didn’t do that for us in the 1960s.”

Hughes, a junior in Sigma Chi who went to three veterans’ homes, said students want to help out where they can in the community, and Veterans Day is a good opportunity.

“We’ve been volunteering at the Amherst Survival Center every Friday this fall and been looking to volunteer at Craig’s Doors, as well,” Hughes said.

Town Hall salute

Later in the morning, a gathering on the North Common in front of Town Hall formally celebrated veterans and what Victor Nunez-Ortiz, administrative officer at the Veterans Administration Central Western Mass Healthcare System, called their “unwavering patriotism.”

“American veterans have remained committed to ensuring our great country remains free and certainly the home of the brave,” said Nunez-Ortiz, a Marine who served in Iraq.

Nunez-Ortiz said it is important to honor the sacrifices of the relatively few who serve and renew commitment to their well-being.

“Thank a veteran today. It’s a celebration day,” Connor said.

Amherst High School Chorale and Hurricane Singers performed the national anthem, and Anita Morris, a retired U.S. Air Force captain, read the invocation. Bockelman also talked about the Civil War tablets that are on display in the Bangs Community Center, the importance of the plaques including the names of Black soldiers, and how this was, in a sense, a type of desegregation.

“To include the names of African American veterans was an act of courage,” Bockelman said. He also pledged to find a permanent home for the tablets that were commissioned by the Grand Army of the Republic in 1893.

Town Council President Lynn Griesemer said the recent withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, and the deaths of 13 soldiers in an Aug. 26 suicide bombing, are stark reminders of the risks faced.

“Too often we don’t pause to say thank you, to those of you still in the service and those who have served,” Griesemer said.

A veteran attending was Robert Walker, who recently moved from Pelham to Amherst. Walker, who served in the Vietnam War, had his electric wheelchair decked out with a number American flags and a sign on the rear reading, “U.S. Veteran: Freedom is Never Free.”

Walker said he wanted to make sure people saw his display throughout downtown.

“I was ready for a parade” Walker said.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.