By LISA CAPOBIANCO
For the past five years, the Bristol Veterans Council has honored high school graduates who choose to serve their country.
This year, 25 graduating seniors who are joining the Armed Forces or attending a military academy have been invited to attend the 5th Annual Salute dinner, which will take place June 13 at Nuchie’s. The students are from Bristol and other surrounding communities.
“These kids are choosing to defend us,” said Tim Gamache, former chairman of the Bristol Veterans Council. “This is an attempt to let them know there are people in town who appreciate their decisions they made.”
During the event, the seniors receive a plaque from the Bristol Veterans Council, along with a citation from the General Assembly in Hartford, and a red, white, and blue tassel to wear with their cap and gown during their graduation ceremony. They also get “coined,” which is a military tradition that occurs for accomplishments like an outstanding performance of duty. Last year, at least 10 students attended the dinner.
During the event, Army Strong provides paperwork that will help graduating seniors and their families with any issues they may encounter and phone numbers of programs to support them.
“It’s just as important for the families to have that information,” said Gamache. “The people who get the most out of this event, at least initially, are the parents themselves. I think they can appreciate what is we’re trying to do.”
This year, Lt. Colonel Sean Connelly, the new commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Veterans Affairs will serve as the guest speaker for the salute dinner. Al Terzi, a former newscaster of WFSB and a military veteran, will serve as the MC again.
Bristol is the second state in the entire country that has created an event like this.
Pat Nelligan, a former chairperson of the Bristol Veterans Council, helped spearhead the event before it began five years ago as a way to recognize and honor graduating seniors joining the military. Every year, an average of 10 to 18 students attend the dinner.
The Bristol Veterans Council ran with the idea, and the Bristol Board of Education also endorsed its support for the initiative, approving the idea for distributing red, white and blue tassels to graduating seniors entering the military.
“They voted unanimously to allow it,” said Gamache, adding how the Bristol Veterans Council appreciates the support of the Board of Education.
Both Gamache and Nelligan, who has served in the U.S. Army 34 years now, recalled how common it was for students attending college to receive recognition at graduation.
“Being a Vietnam veteran, we didn’t get the best welcome home,” said Gamache. “I think most Vietnam veterans who I know now, because of that experience…ensure that it doesn’t get repeated—that’s what this is all about.”
Nelligan said the salute dinner serves as a way to show graduating seniors entering the military that Bristol is there for them and their families. Recalling how the first-ever salute dinner brought goosebumps and tears, Nelligan said the event not only reminds students of the support Bristol has for them, but also instills a premise of paying it forward when they return home from the military, as they have access to a number of veterans organizations to get involved in.
“They know whenever they come back to Bristol, the veterans community welcomes them with open arms,” said Nelligan, adding how students who attended the dinner in the past have returned to the event to show their support for current graduating seniors.
Calling Bristol “unbelievably supportive” when it comes to military service, Gamache said the event also serves as a way to remind the seniors of the support system in place for them in Bristol, where a number of services and veterans organizations are available now and in the future.
“If they have issues, they have a support system in place that can assist them,” said Gamache.
The 5th Annual Salute Dinner will take place Saturday, June 13 at Nuchie’s from 5:30 to 9 p.m. Tickets cost $25, and can be bought ahead of time or at the door. To order tickets, contact Tim Gamache at (860) 977-2152 or mail a check to: Bristol Veterans Council, P.O. Box 2634, with “salute dinner” written in the memo line.
By LISA CAPOBIANCO