War memorials are defining features of the landscape of the cities and towns that make up the Pioneer Valley, New England, and the United States. They are iconic fixtures that serve as focal points in, and sometimes symbols of, our town centers. Because most war memorials were there before most of us, it’s easy to take them for granted and forget why they were placed there in the first place.
Every year, citizens of these cities and towns gather at these war memorials to honor and remember those who “gave the last full measure of devotion” for our nation. Memorial Day reminds us why these monuments are there and why we should pay more attention to them when we aren’t enjoying a day off from work.
The defining feature of the Belchertown town common, for example, is the commanding presence of a Civil War monument, which has also become a symbol of the town. Memorial Day started after the Civil War when it was called Decoration Day. It is the Civil War monuments that stand out in the communities in which they are located due to their relative size. The War Between the States had the most casualties among all was in which American service men and women have fought.
I use Belchertown as an example because on a sad day in 2007, I stood along Maple Street in Belchertown as a long funeral procession for Army Spc. Kenneth Iwasinski made its way to South Cemetery. A Massachusetts State Trooper stopped traffic at the corner of Maple and Main Street and stood at attention as he held a salute as the procession made its way through the intersection and down South Main Street.
Iwasinski was killed in action while serving in Iraq by an improvised explosive device (IED). He was 22 years old. Belchertown installed a Middle East Wars memorial on the town common in 2008.
Iwasinski was the first son of Belchertown killed in action during the Iraq War, but he wasn’t the first casualty of the Iraq War. In 2004, Marine Lance Corporal Jeffrey Lucey committed suicide after he returned home to Belchertown. He suffered from post-traumatic stress. His parents, Kevin and Joyce Lucey, have since become activists for veterans who are dealing with post-traumatic stress.
Anyone who drives down Belchertown’s George Hannum Road to go to Stop & Shop, who drives down Chauncey Walker Street (Route 21), and who turns off of Bay Road onto Warren Wright Road should know that those streets were named for Belchertown sons who sacrificed their lives during World War I.
Every year, Belchertown holds two Memorial Day ceremonies. A short ceremony is held at South Cemetery, which is followed by a parade down Main Street and ceremony on the town common. On the Sunday before Memorial Day, Belchertown also takes part in a Memorial Day ceremony at Quabbin Park Cemetery to remember those who made the ultimate sacrifice in the service of our nation from the lost towns of the Quabbin Reservoir: Enfield, Prescott, Dana, and Greenwich.
Whether you are just visiting the Pioneer Valley or moving to the area and shopping for a home, take the time to visit these war memorials. They aren’t just for decoration and have a much deeper meaning to the respective communities of the region. As such, they are a big part of your community. What they stand for allowed your community to exist.