PEABODY -- During his two deployments to Afghanistan, Stephen Patten didn’t know what he would have done without modern-day tools like email and Skype that kept him in touch with his family.
Yesterday morning, all he had to do to understand was talk to one of the hundreds of other veterans who gathered yesterday inside Wiggin Auditorium at Peabody City Hall.
“I talked to one veteran who served in World War II, Korea and Vietnam,” said Patten, a captain in the Army. “What they went through makes me proud of our veterans and appreciate what they did for us.”
The mingling of veterans ranging from World War II to the current war in Afghanistan came about thanks to the first Peabody Veterans Day Breakfast hosted by Mayor Ted Bettencourt.
More than 350 veterans and their families packed the grand auditorium not only for eggs and sausage but to be recognized by the city for their service.
As a new mayor, Bettencourt told the crowd that he felt an obligation to thank the veterans for providing a “protective shield” for his generation.
“I’ve been very fortunate in my life,” he said. “In many ways I’ve been blessed. I married a woman I love, I have three happy young daughters. I have these advantages and gifts I’ve been given, and they have been afforded to me because of all of you.”
As Bettencourt went from table to table greeting people, veterans handed him pictures and told stories of their wartime experiences.
“It really touches me,” he said.
Tom Paras, who helped build a camp and roads in Da Nang while serving in the Navy Seabees during the Vietnam War, said the gathering of such a large group of veterans should help people remember their service.
“Today a lot of people are distant from what’s happening, so they don’t consider the veterans from a long time ago,” Paras said. “This is a good reminder of how we arrived at and maintained our freedom.”
Many of the veterans in attendance came from families in which fathers or mothers, son or daughters, husbands or wives had also served.
Bill Pcheny served in the Navy in 1946 and ‘47 toward the end of World War II, and his wife, Josephine, was an Air Force captain and nurse who was stationed at a hospital in England during the Korean War.
Bill Pcheny said he’s noticed that more people seem to be acknowledging veterans’ contributions. When he wears his World War II hat, people often thank him for his service.
“It really fascinates me,” he said.
Army veteran Walter Pilkons attended the event with his son, Steven, who recently returned from Iraq. Pilkons’ wife and two step-daughters also served in the military, and his father was a World War II veteran.
Pilkons said his father rarely talked about his war experience, so it’s good for veterans to gather and offer support.
“It is therapeutic,” he said. “It’s good to talk to people who understand.”
As the veterans ate breakfast, the Riverside Renaissance Swing Band provided music from the auditorium balcony. After the meal, Bettencourt read off the names of 110 World War II veterans in attendance. Students from Peabody High School’s Air Force Junior ROTC program presented each of them with a collector’s coin from the city.
Bettencourt said the World War II veterans will also be given a free parking pass good throughout the city.
The event was attended by Congressman John Tierney, state Senator-elect Joan Lovely, Essex County District Attorney Jonathan Blodgett, former Mayor Mike Bonfanti, and several city councilors and School Committee members.
Bettencourt said the breakfast will become an annual event, with veterans of other wars receiving special recognition each year.
Staff writer Paul Leighton can be reached at 978-338-2675 or firstname.lastname@example.org.