Greencastle-Antrim honors veterans on Nov. 11

PAT FRIDGEN
Ben Thomas Jr. was the featured speaker at the Greencastle Veterans Day program at borough hall. Seated from left: American Legion 373 Commander Tony Everetts, April Bitner and son Gunnar, Bev and Roger Bitner, and Pastor Jeff Ehko. The Bitners are the family of Master Sgt. Ben Bitner, who died April 23 in Afghanistan during Operation Enduring Freedom.

Greencastle turned out to honor its own with several programs on Nov. 11. The faces of veterans, old and young, were in the crowds. The stories of those who served were made personal. America's freedoms were credited to the men and women who joined the military, dedicated in times of both peace and war.

Roger and Bev Bitner attended events with their daughter-in-law April and their grandsons, Rogue and Gunnar. The Bitners' son Benjamin paid the ultimate price on April 23, when he was killed in the Kandahar province of Afghanistan. He was serving with the Third Special Forces Group.

Guest speaker Ben Thomas Jr. told the crowd in front of borough hall at 11 a.m. that in 2005, when he suggested a wall be erected to honor Greencastle's sons and daughters who had ever died in battle, "I had no idea a friend's name would be added to it." Bitner's was the first in modern times.

Thomas emphasized the nature of freedom in town, with members of the military serving the community through the years, in government, business, and organizations. He thanked the veterans who came home to strengthen Greencastle, and to those who didn't, quoting a popular song, "You are more than a name on a wall."

VFW Post 6319 Commander Duane Schroyer grew emotional as he read a tribute, which revealed the load soldiers carried on the field: love, memories, panic, tradition, grief, terror, fear of dying. “They carried the weight of the world. They carried each other."

One young man

World War II hit closer to home earlier in the day, when Linda Barron Heinrich talked at a high school assembly about her uncle, who died in a French field hiding from the Germans. A First Lieutenant, Jason Barron and five other men were killed, the cover of a disabled Panzer tank insufficient protection. The villagers found their bodies and they were buried with honors at St. James Cemetery in France. One man recovered two helmets, and decades later located Jason's family. Heinrich helped them find the other five families.

In 2009 the group traveled to France to take possession of the helmets and participate in a program in which the villagers honored the Americans for their support during the war.

"I expected a small ceremony in a church," said Heinrich, who brought along her dad, Emerson Barron. He was 18 when his idolized older brother died at age 23.

They instead found days of events honoring the soldiers, who had been in the hearts of the people all these years. A plaque was dedicated to the six at a war memorial. When the U.S. flag was removed to uncover the marker, "It took my breath away," she said.

The entire community participated in the activities, with a highlight the moment Emerson received the helmet. He broke down and later gave an impromptu impassioned thank-you speech. The trip was recorded in photos and film, shared with the rapt student audience.

The Barron family met Roger Pillu, the man who saved the helmet, and Roger Bignon, who was nine when he witnessed Jason's final battle. They visited the site of his death, the Panzer still in place. It was only in France that they learned the circumstances of Jason's death on Aug. 17, 1944, something his parents and young wife never knew.

Benjamin Bitner was also honored with a song written by high school choral director Roz Bingaman and sung by the Concert Choir. The words to Hero's Pledge were:

He gave his life, ultimate sacrifice, Leaving mother, father, children and a wife. He stood his ground, he made a stand, Devoting service for his country, flag and land.

What can we do? What can we say To show our gratitude for what we can't repay? We can pledge allegiance to Old Glory; The Great Red, White and Blue.

Chorus: I pledge allegiance to the United States of America And to the Republic for which she stands, One nation under God, Indivisible, with Liberty and Justice for All.

So when you see her colors,Think of the men and women and the lives they gave. May God forever bless our land And may we honor those who bravely took their stand.

An evening tribute

Sponsored by the Greencastle-Antrim Chamber of Commerce, an evening program at the high school was designed to allow working people the chance to attend a Veterans Day tribute.

Bob Harris, Franklin County Director of Veterans Affairs since 1992, learns living history every day at work. What service people couldn't tell their family and friends, they could share with him. "Everyone has something in common. They swore to defend the Constitution and went through basic training. Some didn't make it. Those that did were better. They were a team."

He joked that a vet may not know his wife's birthday, but he would remember his service number his entire life.

An employee of the county, his office brought in $1.5 million of due compensation for area veterans each of the past seven years. He is ready to help any of the county's 13,000 veterans.

Thomas again addressed the audience, as a member of the Air Force Auxiliary Civil Air Patrol from 1971-1975, and the nephew of a World War II soldier who died at Guadalcanal.

He had watched Bitner grow up.

"If ever there was one to become a warrior, it was Benjamin Bitner. He had confidence and determination."

Quoting from Ephesians 6, he said, "Put on the full armor of God...that you may be able to stand your ground. And he (Bitner) did."

More ways to honor

The middle school is participating in the Library of Congress Veterans History Project. Teacher Deena Kirkwood asks that any veterans willing to be interviewed call her at 597-3226. Harris also supported the endeavor, with the library creating a living history for the past seven years.

During Heritage Christmas, visitors downtown may remember the military away from home by making Christmas cards. On Dec. 2 and 9 from 6 to 8 p.m., people may stop at Greencastle Church of the Brethren, 36 S. Carlisle St. to make or write a card. People can submit names of soldiers by calling the chamber at 597-4610.

Greencastle-Antrim Middle School students joined residents in honoring America's military Nov. 11 at Greencastle borough hall. The day was cold and windy, but as VFW Post 6319 Commander Duane Schroyer told the audience, soldiers fought in such conditions or worse, and didn't have the option to warm up indoors.