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Alpena veterans reflect on the meaning of Independence Day

News Photo by Darby Hinkley Veterans gather at the Alpena VFW Post 2496 Hall on Thursday. Pictured from left to right are Joseph Demski, Matt Hagaman, Mark Goss and Thomas Burton.

ALPENA — Independence Day is not about fireworks and partying. It’s about patriotism and honoring those who have fought to secure and maintain our freedoms as Americans. Veterans and those currently serving in the military told us about what the Fourth of July means to them.

Veterans talk about

Independence Day

Joseph Demski served four years in the Navy. Matt Hagaman served nine years in the Marine Corps and 13 years in the Air National Guard. Mark Goss served four-and-a-half years in the Marine Corps. Thomas Burton served three years in the Marine Corps during the Vietnam War.

“Patriotism. Honor. Service to your country and your fellow Americans,” Burton said of what the Fourth of July means to him.

News Photo by Darby Hinkley Sgt. 1st Class Chad Francisco, Army National Guard

The four men were socializing over beers on Thursday, the first day the Alpena VFW Post 2496 Hall reopened since being shut down because of the pandemic. They were talking about details of the Fourth of July walk scheduled for this morning at 10 a.m. from the courthouse to JJ’s Steak & Pizza House on North 2nd Avenue.

“It’s a day that we should honor everybody that is in right now, overseas, fighting for our freedoms, and here in this country fighting for our freedoms,” Goss said. “Every one of us has taken an oath to protect this country and Constitution from foreign and domestic” threats. “We are thankful for everyone that is doing that.”

Are people being patriotic on the Fourth of July? Are enough people thinking about the true meaning of Independence Day?

“As far as most people, no, I don’t think they think about it when they’re flippin’ their burgers and all that,” Goss said. “I’ve rarely been to a Fourth of July party where somebody else brings up a toast for what we’re talking about now. It’s sort of like Memorial Day. It’s not a barbecue day. It’s a Memorial Day.”

“I think people today are abusing our system,” Demski said. “They’re using our rights against us. They’re not standing up for what we believe in — our freedom.”

News Photo by Darby Hinkley Pvt. Damon Adams, Army National Guard

The men were glad to be able to reconvene at the VFW Hall, being surrounded by others who understand and appreciate what they have been through.

“It’s a great place,” Goss said. “The camaraderie here, we can talk about anything with our brothers and sisters and be fine. It’s something you can’t do out on the street. Who knows who you’re walking up to? But there’s veterans everywhere. Everywhere.”

“From all branches of the service,” Burton added. “You know, when we come here, into this building, this is our home … We honor each other. We respect each other. We respect the ones that are standing on the wall as we sit here, for our freedom.”

Demski added that, no matter which branch of the military you have served in, we are all united as Americans.

“We fought under one flag, in unity, against all transgressions going on,” Demski said. “We are all one.”

News Photo by Darby Hinkley The American Flag flies over Alpena City Hall on Friday, symbolizing our freedom.

Goss added that while it’s nice to have the camaraderie within the VFW, being out and helping the community is a big priority for them. For example, the Marine Corps Detachment League and the Agent Orange Riders organized the Memorial Day events this year, with prior authorization from the City of Alpena to be sure social distancing was practiced.

“We’re sitting here talking about our camaraderie and all that, but we’re also part of the community,” Goss said. “We want to help our community out, too, because, like I said, there’s veterans everywhere. And there’s veterans that are scared to come into places like this because they don’t want to open up, or they don’t know what it’s all about. And then there’s veterans out there that are down on their luck, but other community members are in the same shape. We’d love for the community to know that we are for them. Not only are we brothers and sisters here — we can do a lot for the community too.”

Burton said the VFW is always looking for more veterans to join. He said the Alpena Post has over 400 members but that number fluctuates.

“We’ve lost a lot of World War II veterans,” he said. “And now we’re into the Korean War veterans and Vietnam and Afghanistan. So, we constantly rotate as our membership gets older and they pass on.”

“We really need to start getting new members, younger members into these organizations — the American Legion, the VFW, the Marine Corps League, the DAV,” Hagaman said, referring to the Disabled American Veterans. “Or we’re just going to disappear. You know, buildings like this, they’re just going to disappear. There’ll be no place for veterans to get involved and talk about their stories to each other.”

He said younger veterans are always welcome to join.

“We really need to concentrate on the younger veterans getting out of the service,” Hagaman said. “We understand that they’re starting their families up. They don’t have time just to hang out with a bunch of old farts like Jerry,” he joked, pointing to Burton.

“I’m 75, I’m not old,” Burton retorted with a smile. “I’m a young man.”

Goss added, “That’s true. I didn’t get involved with this until I was 40.”

Hagaman added that focusing on the true meaning of Independence Day is vital.

“It’s important for our communities to recognize veterans and especially on the Fourth of July,” Hagaman said. “A lot of the signees of the Declaration of Independence, they lost everything during the Revolution. So it’s one big day for us to memorialize those guys. It’s not a veterans thing — it’s an American thing.”

New soldier excited

Damon Adams, 17, has known since he was about 7 years old that he would go into the military. He just wasn’t sure which branch. He landed on the Army National Guard because he said their benefits were the best of all the branches he researched, including the Marines, Air Force, Army and Navy. Pvt. Adams signed up March 27 of this year and said he couldn’t be happier with his decision.

“I’ve been a lifelong patriot,” Adams said on Thursday. “Patriotism means more to me than just red, white and blue.”

He then quoted President Ronald Reagan: “If we look to the answer, as to why for so many years we achieved so much, prospered as no other people on Earth, it was because here in this land we unleashed the energy and individual genius of man to a greater extent than has ever been done before.”

“That quote has always spoken to me because that’s what patriotism means. That’s what the Fourth of July means to me,” Adams said. “The hard work of men and women over all these years has led to you and I sitting here today.”

He said it’s not just the wars but the efforts made during peacetime that made him want to be a part of the military to continue to defend those freedoms we sometimes take for granted.

“We’re such an extraordinary place,” Adams added. “You look at places that have been around for a lot longer and are nowhere near where we are today. Because of that energy and individual genius of mankind that we have here, that’s allowed us to get where we are.”

Adams was ready to sign as soon as he talked to Sgt. First Class Chad Francisco at the Army National Guard recruitment office.

“I was so excited,” Adams said, adding that he was supposed to ship out to basic training this summer, but that was postponed because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I also get to go to Camp Grayling every month, so I’m very happy with where I am,” Adams said.

He explained that the National Guard benefits include paying for four years of college, and that benefits are both state and federal.

Recruiter enjoys helping others achieve goals

Francisco is always pleased to see a bright young person join the Army National Guard.

“He has a lot of goals and he knew the National Guard could help him get there,” Francisco said of Adams, an Alpena High School student. “That young man is going to go places. Very patriotic, very happy.”

Francisco has been serving in the military for 16-½ years now, following in his father’s footsteps. His dad is retired Major Gen. Burt Francisco, who also served in the Army National Guard.

“I grew up — I was kind of an Army brat,” Chad Francisco said with a smirk. “My dad served 40 years before he retired, but I just remember watching my dad come home in his fatigues. I was always playing Army as a kid, wearing my dad’s gear. It’s just something I knew I was going to do my whole life.”

Chad Francisco served three years active duty in the Army prior to joining the Army National Guard. He’s been recruiting for five years now.

“I’d like to do at least 30 years,” Francisco said of continuing his military career.

He enjoys recruiting quality young people to start their careers and helping them achieve their goals.

“Our biggest target market is high school individuals and college individuals,” he explained. “If they want to be a soldier and serve in the Army National Guard, it’s not like active duty Army when you join and you leave. Here, you’re stationed in Michigan somewhere. You work one weekend a month, two weeks in the summertime, roughly 45 days a year, but they’re full-time college students.”

He said it’s a great gig for anyone looking to both serve in the military and gain a college education at the same time.

“The National Guard can pay for their education while they’re serving their community, state and country,” he said.

He said the Army National Guard has been deployed in Michigan since mid-March when the pandemic began.

“When everybody thinks ‘deployed’ they think Iraq and Afghanistan,” Francisco added. “But soldiers deploy daily here in Michigan to help better our state and our communities.”

He said especially now during the pandemic, the National Guard has been deployed to help with many situations, including COVID-19 testing sites, guarding food banks downstate, handling riots and natural disasters such as the flooding that occurred in May in the Midland area, when the Edenville Dam burst, emptying Wixom Lake into the surrounding neighborhoods and Sanford Lake. The Sanford Dam burst as well, causing major damage to area homes, bridges and roadways.

“The National Guard, we don’t come in and take over,” Francisco noted. “We’re there to support and assist all the local authorities.”

As for what the Fourth of July means to him, Francisco said, “It’s just a big day, because our forefathers — it’s what they fought for to make our lives easier.”

Darby Hinkley is Lifestyles editor. Reach her at 989-358-5691 or dhinkley@thealpenanews.com.

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