OPINION: Honoring veterans, celebrating immigrants

OPINION: Honoring veterans, celebrating immigrants

November 11th is an important date in an annual calendar for most Americans, a day set aside to recognize the enormous debt we owe to those who have served in the U.S. military. I am proud to be able to say that Veterans Day celebrations in Wallingford are very well attended, and I always look forward to being in front of Town Hall at 11am on that day.

However, this year we happened to be in California on that day, specifically in Palm Springs.  My wife Cathy had researched options on where to honor our vets, and found an interesting place to be: the General Patton Memorial Museum in Chiriaco Summit, CA, located fifty-two miles and twelve hundred feet higher in altitude from Palm Springs via Interstate 10.  Having missed Wallingford’s event, I would like to tell you of our experience and its most significant impact on both of us.

Chiriaco Summit is truly the proverbial “wide spot in the road,” essentially a truck stop, restaurant, gift shop, and post office. It was established in 1933 by Joe Chiriaco, an Italian immigrant who saw a business opportunity when he learned that U.S. Route 60 was being built (subsequently replaced by I-10).  In 1942, General George Patton met Joe while seeking a place to prepare troops for desert warfare in Africa. Eventually 1.8 million troops trained there, and the museum was opened in 1988 to memorialize the general and the former 18,000-square-mile Desert Training Center on land donated by the Chiriacos.

Besides celebrating the day, we were also attending the grand reopening of one of the museum’s major buildings, the Chandi West Wing, named after one of the major patrons of its redesigning and remodeling, Nachhattar S. Chandi.  Additionally, today was also the thirtieth anniversary of the opening of the museum itself.

At least three hundred people were in attendance, with music provided by the Coachella Valley High School Marching Band.  This large ensemble of at least forty students not only opened the event with the Star Spangled Banner, but also played three numbers during the event.  It was announced that this group had been chosen to represent the State of California at the Memorial Day Parade in Washington, D.C., on May 27, 2019. This will give you an idea of how accomplished are these young people, almost all of whom are immigrants themselves or the children of immigrants from Mexico.

The Veterans Day Celebration and 30th Anniversary event began promptly at 11 a.m. with a flyover of WWII aircraft from the Palm Springs Air Museum.  As expected, there were remarks from dignitaries, awards to five retired U.S. Army generals who live in the Palm Springs area, a special award given to Mr. Chandi for his generosity, and a keynote address given by a colonel from the Fort Irwin National Training Center located in the Mojave Desert.

At the conclusion of this event, we had an opportunity to share our impressions of what we had witnessed. Obviously, we came away with renewed admiration and respect for those who have served in the United States military. America does indeed owe its continued freedom to those who have put their lives on the line to protect us and our way of life — as well as that of millions and millions of others throughout the world.

But in addition to that, we came away from this observance with yet more examples of how American society is constantly being replenished by its immigrants.  Chiriaco Summit was established by an Italian immigrant and the museum celebrating the U.S. military was built on land he and his wife donated.  This same museum is being rebuilt a generation later by an immigrant from India who has become a very successful businessman in Palm Springs.  

Perhaps the most touching evidence we saw that day were forty or so Mexican-American high school students proudly belting out the Star Spangled Banner at a Veterans Day event.  After all of the noise, all of the distress, and all of the controversy surrounding immigration to this country, here is a group of young people who are way too busy making something of themselves to be discouraged by what they sometimes must hear and read.

There was something very special and very appropriate about the combination of honoring our veterans and witnessing — at the same time — the accomplishments and contributions made by those who have come to our country.  Veterans have kept safe the ideals of America being the land of opportunity and freedom.  Immigrants personify how these freedoms and opportunities that our veterans protected are brought to life.  And there it was on the 11th day of the 11th month of 2018 in the California desert. 

Stephen Knight is a former Wallingford town councilor.


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