CATSKILL — Several local veterans were outraged by the political rhetoric in a speech during the opening ceremony for the Vietnam Traveling Memorial Wall on Thursday.
The Memorial Wall features the names of the 58,220 Americans who lost their lives in Vietnam. The exhibit is scaled down to three-fifths of the size of the one in Washington. An escort of over 100 motorcycles and law enforcement and emergency vehicles from throughout the county accompanied the wall to the Historic Catskill Point.
Tom Andreassen, the post commander of the Honeyford Memorial Post 110, served as the master of ceremonies on Thursday.
In his speech, Andreassen warned the audience to be mindful of who they voted for, so they could keep socialists and communists out of government, because that is what veterans died fighting for.
Andreassen said he would “fight tooth and nail” to make sure they didn’t die for nothing.
He closed the ceremony by saying, “God bless our president.”
Andreassen’s political remarks did not sit well with veteran John Lissandrello of Palenville.
“It is a golden rule that at that event — a solemn event on sacred ground — there is no place for politics,” Lissandrello said.
Lissandrello served in the U.S. Army as a Spc. 4th Class during the war and knew several of the Greene County veterans who were killed in action and honored Thursday.
Lissandrello said he was shocked at the content of Andreassen’s speech.
“Catskill and Greene County decided to have a master of ceremonies that tried to have a Trump rally and turn it into a political event,” Lissandrello said. “I was so enraged that I got up and walked out.”
Andreassen went off script of his own accord, Greene County Administrator Shaun Groden said Friday.
“The committee made a determination as to who the primary speaker was,” Groden said. “There was a script that Tom was given and it was written and approved by the committee. By his own admission he said he was going off script.”
The content was not discussed by the committee, Groden said, adding that it should not have been included.
Andreassen was on the committee, as were representatives from other veterans groups and various county departments.
Thursday was Lissandrello’s fourth time seeing the wall, he said. The other towns did not bring politics into the mix, he said.
After the ceremony, Lissandrello spoke with the wall manager, Richard Russo, who has toured the country with the wall for 13 years.
“[Russo] was appalled,” Lissandrello said. “He has been with the wall 13 years and he has never experienced anything like that. I’m sure he will make sure Catskill never gets the wall again after that.”
Russo said he would not make the decision based on Thursday’s events.
“It’s not going to have an effect on whether or not I come back,” Russo said. “I bring it out for people who can’t make it to Washington, D.C.”
Russo agreed he had not had this type of feedback before.
“I have had three or four phone calls and 15 emails about the speaker,” he said. “I have never gotten this type of feedback before. A lot of people are not happy.”
Throughout his experience with the wall, Russo said politics seldom come into play.
“Even politicians know the war is a neutral place,” he said. “If you want to talk politics, get on the other side of the fence.”
Russo said he believed that it was a beautiful ceremony.
“You can’t help people wanting to say whatever they want,” Russo said.
Groden agreed that the ceremony went well overall.
“I want to thank the committee,” he said. “Their work was invaluable. I was very impressed. Everything unfolded very nicely from the beginning.”
Crane Davis, of Palenville, served as a rifle platoon commander in the Marines.
Davis did not approve of the conduct at the ceremony, he said in a statement.
“At the Vietnam Wall, a very special group of veterans and their families gather to honor those who fought and died together in the mud of Vietnam,” Davis wrote. “Which is why it was so inappropriate for the host to go off script and tell us, among other things, that he’s going to grab his rifle if more socialists and communists get into Congress.
“In Vietnam, no one cared what party you were in,” Davis said. “Today’s ceremony was supposed to be about the men on the wall, but you placed your party politics above them and made it about yourselves. It was the most ill-conceived and thoughtless memorial service I’ve ever attended, and it dishonored the very men it set out to honor. Have you no shame?”