By Cady Kuzmich
Halfmoon– The town of Halfmoon recognized the state’s annual Yellow Ribbon Day a day early Friday April 8 at Halfmoon’s Town Hall with special guest Colonel Allen Ross, Vice Wing Commander of the 109th Airlift Wing of Stratton Air National Guard Base. Over 100 community members, local politicians, veterans and current troops gathered to celebrate the annual event while a fire truck dangled a massive flag from its ladder outside.
Carol Pingelski Hotaling, a Halfmoon native, has been organizing an annual Yellow Ribbon Day ceremony in Saratoga County to honor United States troops since 2006. Hotaling explained the significance of the original April 9 date, saying it was the day Staff Sergeant Matt Maupin, the first U.S. prisoner of war in Iraq, was captured in 2004. His remains were recovered four years later. Hotaling spent six weeks volunteering in Ohio with the Maupin family charity, The Yellow Ribbon Support Center, in 2006. When she returned to New York, she thought to herself, “I have to start doing more” and began lobbying for a statewide Yellow Ribbon Day.
Yellow Ribbon Day is for current troops, Hotaling said, noting that those currently enlisted in the military are often left out of Veteran’s Day celebrations.
“It was the best decision I ever made,” said Janette Chartrand a young woman who joined the army five years ago when she was just 18 years old. Chartrand grew up listening to her grandfather tell stories about serving in Vietnam and now works as a recruiter in Troy with plans to make a career in the military. When asked what her dream job within the military would be, she replied, “I’m doing it!”
Navy veteran Crystal Hicks, a Halfmoon native who served for 23 years before retiring, led the pledge of allegiance Friday. When asked what advice she might give to a young person considering the military Hicks said it’s important to understand, “It’s not a job. It’s a lifestyle and it’s a life commitment. It’s not easy but it’s gratifying to be part of something bigger than yourself.” Hicks has served in 15 different countries throughout her career and said she’d like to visit Israel or Greece again if she had the chance.
Hicks’s daughter Cassandra followed in her mother’s footsteps and joined the service four years ago. Hotaling beams when talking about Hicks who often visited her family while growing up in Halfmoon.
Keynote speaker Colonel Allen Ross spoke about his long career in the air force, his experience working for the FBI and the shifting dynamics between civilians and soldiers throughout the decades. “It’s gratifying to see the support of the public as troops come home — it’s vastly different from previous decades,” he said.
At the end of his speech, Ross recalled something one of his FBI advisors told him, saying, “a veteran is someone who, at one point, wrote a blank check made payable to ‘The United States of America’ for an amount of ‘up to and including their life.”
Clifton Park Town Supervisor Phil Barrett led both the national anthem and an impressive rendition of “God Bless America.”
Hotaling said Yellow Ribbon Day usually benefits The Blue Star Mothers, a group of women whose children are serving or have served in the military. The group sends care packages to soldiers away from home. Donna Vickery spoke on behalf of the Blue Star Mothers and described what it’s like to sit by the phone waiting for a call from a loved one serving abroad. “The gray hair comes in,” she laughed. This year, The Blue Star Mothers suggested Yellow Ribbon Day benefit another local charity group devoted to the troops — VETHELP.
VETHELP is a Ballston Spa-based nonprofit whose mission is to support homeless veterans “by empowering them to embrace and maintain independent living and self-sufficiency.” The nonprofit operates The Vet House of Saratoga County for male veterans and The Guardian House for female veterans — one of only two veteran houses for women in the state.
Donations collected by the Saratoga County Clerk’s Office throughout the month of March and into early April were presented to VETHELP representatives before Friday’s event. Cheryl Hage-Perez, Executive Director of Saratoga Rural Preservation Company and Director of VETHELP said the community’s generosity left her speechless. “The Blue Star Mothers have been very supportive,” she added.
Hage-Perez said, “It’s our philosophy that the words ‘homeless’ and ‘veteran’ should never be in the same sentence.”
Hotaling praised the work of VETHELP, saying “They give counseling and help them find jobs. That’s a big step for them when they come home. So many people don’t know about [VETHELP] at all.”
“These men and women are fighting for our freedom. Freedom is not free. They need stuff year round. This isn’t just a one time thing,” she added.