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‘Surrounded by heroes’

Updated: 
November 12, 2017 - 12:05am

KAILUA-KONA — Angel Pilago spoke Saturday of the silent soldiers encircling his place at the podium— both those listening intently from chairs under the canopy in front of him and those laid to rest beneath the army of fluttering American flags planted in the hallowed grounds of West Hawaii Veterans Cemetery behind him.

“We are surrounded by heroes,” he said.

A member of the 101st Airborne during the Vietnam War, Pilago is something of a hero himself. He assumed command in the midst of combat one night in September of 1968, his platoon leader and platoon sergeant having both fallen to enemy forces.

His actions to corral his men earned him a Silver Star. Pilago would win two more Bronze Stars before the dark night of war gave way to the dawn of a new peace.

But the message of Pilago’s keynote address at the cemetery’s Veterans Day program wasn’t about courage on the battlefield or the fight to preserve freedom. Instead, it was about the very nature of freedom itself.

And duty, he said, does not understand divisiveness.

“Caucasian. Filipino. Japanese,” Pilago said. “They tell us that freedom has the feel of tolerance. Freedom sees respect. And freedom has the taste of dignity.”

Red, white and blue rippled under a gray sky behind him.

“A Christian. A Buddhist. And a Jew,” he continued. “They sing to us a song of freedom. A song that honors respect and dignity and tolerance.”

He hailed Alfredo Tobias, shot in the neck in World War II and buried near the walkway to Pilago’s right. The bullet should have taken his life, Pilago said. Instead, it spurred Tobias to serve once more in Korea, a war he would also survive.

Pilago honored James Gregory, who waited for hours to get a cup of coffee amid the icy hell of the Battle of Bastogne in Belgium during the winter of 1944.

“He’s going to die,” Pilago said. “But in that cup of coffee, he’s reminded of family. And the fragrance stirs him. And he lives.”

Gregory, too, rests to Pilago’s right.

Pilago also recognized Gold Star Families in attendance, including those of Marine Lance Cpl. Christopher Camero and Army 1st Lt. Robert Bennedsen, the two veterans killed in action in Afghanistan and laid to rest at West Hawaii Veterans Cemetery.

“I don’t know if they do this on the mainland, but this is the first place I’ve seen when every time we get together here for a ceremony, they recognize the Gold Star Families,” said Melissa ‘Bull Dog’ Mixon, an Army veteran of the Gulf War, who was attending her fourth Veterans Day program Saturday.

“Every time.”

The respect in the soft purpose of Pilago’s voice was unmistakable as he spoke of these heroes, now departed.

“If we respect each other and have tolerance, then we become part of nurturing and growing liberty, and we protect our constitutional freedoms,” Pilago said.

Respect is a tie that binds servicemembers throughout the generations, and the rest who listen and watch and try to honor their sacrifices.

Goldie Lefkowitz, now 95, shared on Saturday a story from her first days in the United States after emigrating from Nazi Germany at the age of 19.

A man she’d recently met took her to the Paramount Theatre in New York City’s Times Square for their first date. Halfway through the film, the screen went black and the theater manager appeared on stage with a microphone.

The United States, he explained, had just been attacked by Japan at Pearl Harbor. The country was at war.

Lefkowitz called his words “chilling,” adding they were followed first by silence, and then by a great uproar.

“There were lots of questions,” she said. “But there were no answers.”

The manager told the audience there were booths in the lobby for those men who wished to sign up for the war effort. What Lefkowitz saw next remains vivid in her memory more than three quarters of a century later.

“What I witnessed was America’s worst day and America’s finest hour, when I saw all these hundreds of young men going down the aisle and signing up,” she recalled. “My newfound friend gave me a peck on the cheek, and he said, ‘Goldie, I have to go.’ We shook hands, and he was gone.”

Respect. Dignity. Tolerance.

Pilago said he hoped what those who listened would take from his speech was that these virtues are bursting with so much necessity that they aren’t just recognized through one’s senses — they envelop them.

“They’re not words,” Pilago said. “They’re values you feel and believe they’re alive.”

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