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Westfield honors military, first responders in 350th anniversary parade

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WESTFIELD – When the city celebrated its 300th birthday, Gary Larese missed it – he was away fighting in Vietnam.

On Sunday he almost missed the 350th birthday again but this time because he had volunteered to distribute poppies and collect donations for disabled veterans at the same time the parade was heading through the city.

“I switched my time but I only have a two-hour window to watch the parade,” he said. “I’m glad I caught the beginning with all the veterans.”

When Westfield decided to celebrate its 350th anniversary, organizers agreed the culminating event would be a parade with the theme “Honoring the Heroes of Westfield.” That included police, firefighters and first responders as well as the military and veterans, said Harry Rock, parade organizer.

“It is about thanking the people who serve our city,” he said.

When asked about the theme, Mayor Brian Sullivan said he thought it was a great idea.

“I was very supportive. Westfield has always supported the military and with the Air National Guard right here it is a natural for us,” he said.

Larese said now people often thank him when he collects donations for the disabled veterans or when he tells people he served in Vietnam from 1969 to 1971, but that wasn’t always the case.

“It took a long time but people have really come out and been supportive of the veterans,” he said.

Among the first units in the parade were several American Legion Posts, police, firefighters and the Air National Guard’s 104th Fighter Wing that calls Barnes Air National Guard Base in Westfield home.

When they went by many parade-goers rose from their lawn chairs and clapped for them.

“It is to show respect for the work they do and that they have to do,” said Barbara Tysz, of West Springfield, who gave the veterans a standing ovation.

Lt. Gen. L. Scott Rice, the director of the Air National Guard at the Pentagon, also marched in the parade. Rice is a former commander of the 104th Fighter Wing and was based at Barnes Air National Guard Base multiple times starting in 1989.

“Everything we do is about the communities,” he said. “This is the heart and soul of what we do.”

Senior Master Sgt. Adam Casineau, a member of the 104th Fighter Wing, said he enjoyed marching in the parade and seeing his Westfield neighbors.

“It was fantastic,” he said. “We are usually on base and it was nice for the community to see us and it is nice to be here to celebrate Westfield’s birthday.”

William Chojnowski, a Vietnam veteran who received two Purple Hearts in the war, had just come back from Vietnam for the 300th anniversary and he did march in the parade. Until recently he has also marched in every Memorial Day parade.

He said he is disappointed some of the veterans’ organizations such as the Veterans of Foreign Wars have closed in Westfield because there just isn’t enough interest to keep them running.

While he appreciated the parade theme, Chojnowski said it is also “too little too late” to make up for how badly Vietnam veterans were treated when they returned from war.

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