Vietnam War veteran Ernie Conner was noticeably touched Wednesday morning following Stanislaus State’s eighth annual “Thank A Veteran” event as he and four other members of the Merced County Veterans of Foreign Wars Honor Guard were recognized not only for their service during times of conflict, but also for their time spent honoring the lives of other veterans.
“The appreciation that this generation is showing towards us is really nice,” said Conner.
Conner spent 22 years in the service — the first ten in Communications and Intelligence and the last 12 as a tailgunner on a B-52 in Vietnam. He has been on the Merced County VFW Honor Guard for over a decade.
“The last paycheck I got was in 2002, so all my time after that has been spent volunteering,” said Conner.
Hosted by the Troops to College — Stanislaus Committee, this year’s event honored the Merced County VFW Honor Guard for their continued service to deceased veterans and their families at the San Joaquin Valley National Cemetery in Santa Nella. They perform ceremonies such as gun salutes and the presentation of the flag at funerals of deceased veterans several times each month, as well as participate in the Top of the Hill Ceremony four times a year to honor all veterans who died in the previous three months.
Members of the Honor Guard also work closely with funeral homes in Merced County, attending local funeral services for any veteran at the family’s request.
“We felt that their dedication and commitment was deserving of our annual ‘Thank-A-Veteran’ award,” said Meg Lewis, who helped coordinate Thursday’s event. “They have performed nearly 60 services at the San Joaquin National Cemetery and throughout Merced County.”
The Honor Guard is comprised of 23 volunteers from the Atwater and Winton VFW chapters. Members served in the Iraq War, Afghanistan War, Cold War, Vietnam War and Korean War. One member received a Purple Heart, and another member not only served in World War II, but survived the attack on Pearl Harbor. In addition to Conner, Ken Wenrich, Jack Kelly, Leonard Samuelson and Ernesto Lozano were honored.
“The underlying goal of the event is to honor, respect and appreciate military veterans for their service and what they have endured to ensure our freedoms and protection,” said Lewis. “The message that is shared is clear, honest, caring and essential — we appreciate our veterans.
“Our freedom most certainly has come at a great cost to our veterans, active duty members and their families. We strive to make the campus community an environment of support, encouragement and solidarity,” continued Lewis.
Students at Cunningham Elementary School also paid tribute to local veterans just before Veterans Day with their first ever Veterans Day Celebration Thursday morning.
“Our campus has a wide diversity of cultures,” said assistant principal Joaquin Galvan. “The lines are blurred at our school and everyone is equal, so I wanted to show the kids who these veterans were and to make sure that they understood that these are our family. This is why we are here.
“It’s all about freedom and honoring those who sacrificed their lives for us,” continued Galvan.
During Thursday’s event, students honored 18 veterans from all military branches who served in Iraq, Korea and Vietnam. Veterans were escorted by student council members or student relatives to the quad, where all students sang “You’re A Grand Old Flag” waving American flags.
“We even had students who came from Iraq two years ago dressed in cultural attiring singing along,” said Galvan. “It was very emotional and educational.”
As the guest speaker of Thursday’s event, Turlock Mayor Gary Soiseth relayed to students about his time spent in Afghanistan. He and American Legion Post 88 Commander Gunner Bruce also spoke about how important it is to honor and respect veterans not only on Veterans Day, but year-round.
“We felt like we needed to reach out to the community and let them know that we appreciate them,” said Galvan. “We have to honor our own.”