WASHINGTON – The Department of Veterans Affairs’ (VA) Center for Women Veterans today announced a partnership with LeanIn.Org, the nonprofit organization founded by Facebook Chief Operating Officer, Sheryl Sandberg, to empower women to achieve their ambitions. Building on the successful launch of LeanIn.Org circleswithin the Department of Defense, VA is following the same model to increase support to women Veterans. The VA initiative is called the LeanIn.Org Women Veterans’ chapter. The Women Veterans Chapter is comprised of two distinct pilot programs: the Veteran-to-Veteran program, a virtual program, which allows any woman Veteran to participate, no matter where she is located; meetings will be moderated and attended by women Veterans throughout the United States. The second is a face-to-face pilot circle. The face-to-face program is created in partnership with the existing LeanIn.Org chapter in Seattle, WA. This circle is an innovative hybrid of women Veterans and non-military members providing an environment for both to learn and share leadership skills. “We are thrilled to have LeanIn.Org as our collaborative partner,” said Kayla M. Williams, Director of VA’s Center for Women Veterans. “For many years, women Veterans have expressed to us that they need to have a mechanism to engage with their fellow women Veterans to make a difference in their community and we believe this is the perfect match. VA is pleased to be a part of these two pilot programs.” “Women are the fastest growing population of our nation's Veterans and through this Circles program, these women will have the peer support and community they need to reach their goals,” said Ashley Finch, LeanIn.Org, Head of Partnerships. “Leanin.Org is proud to be a part of this groundbreaking and important initiative.” For more information about the LeanIn.org Women Veterans’ chapter, visit LeanIn.Org/womenvets orhttp://leaninseattle.org/veterans. ###
Claudiu Oltean, a jumpmaster and member of the U.S. Army's 10th Special Forces Group, grew up under the thumb of one of eastern Europe's most oppressive regimes: Romania. In 1999, he made his way to the United States and joined the Army to fight for the freedom of others. Saturday, he was emotionally struck to come into the company of a living military ancestor who fought for the same reason in 1944: 92-year-old Bob Nooby of New York. "I know what it means to not be free," Oltean said during the annual Amis des Veterans Americains (Friends of American Veterans) banquet in Ste. Mere-Eglise, Normandy, France. "I know what having nothing means." Nooby jumped into Ste. Mere-Eglise with the 101st Airborne Division on June 6, 1944, in advance of the Allied beach landings in Normandy that broke through Hitler's Atlantic Wall and began a bloody, deadly 11-month march that led to victory in World War II's European Theater. He was 19 years old on the night he sprang from a C-47 and landed in what would become the first city liberated in the D-Day invasion. "All the firing that was going on out there, I just wanted to get the hell out of there," Nooby said at the AVA banquet, where American Legion National Commander Dale Barnett and American Legion Auxiliary National President Sharon Conatser had head-table seats and received honorary memberships in the French organization. "I never was scared, that I remember. We were well-trained." Oltean and Nooby were among hundreds of active-duty troops and a dwindling few World War II veterans at the banquet who made connections across generations. "Men like him made it possible for me to be here," said Oltean, a combat soldier who has deployed both in Iraq and Afghanistan. "We would not be here without them. It gives me chills. This is history, man." More than 600 attended the annual banquet, including multiple paratroopers who were scheduled to re-enact the airborne assault on Normandy the following day before tens of thousands who annually gather near La Fiere Bridge to commemorate the anniversary of the D-Day invasion. Nooby, who received the French Legion of Honor two years ago, has returned to Normandy five times. "This is the fifth.... and the last one," he said, adding that he is always humbled by the people of Normandy and their appreciation of U.S. military service, particularly those who fought and died for their liberation from German occupation in World War II. "I love every one of them. They have always been so good to me." The World War II veteran understands the effect he has on younger soldiers, like Oltean. "But I don't like a lot of praise," Nooby said, "because it makes me cry." Oltean, emotionally struck to be in the presence of a Normandy paratrooper, watched as attendees lined up to get Nooby's autograph or to have a photo taken with him or with other Normandy campaign veterans at the banquet. By Jeff Stoffer
Kathalyn and Joseph Barnett scurried from frog ponds to beach shores Monday, doing what any ordinary 13-year-old and 11-year-old ought to do on a family trip. But this was no ordinary family trip, and there was much more for the kids to collect than clamshells, frogs and sand crabs. They collected what their father believes will be a lifelong memory and an understanding that boys not much older than them fell fighting for the liberation of others on the beaches they freely explored Monday. Kathalyn and Joseph are the daughter and son of American Legion National Commander Dale Barnett and his wife Donna. The beaches they visited were far from ordinary. They were code-named Omaha and Utah in the D-Day invasion of World War II that led to the liberation of Europe from Axis tyranny. A weekend there, culminating with remembrance ceremonies at the Normandy American Cemetery and Pointe du Hoc, included the opportunity for the children to meet some of the veterans who fought in Normandy during the World War II invasion and to see the massive international appreciation of what the invasion meant to the future of a free world. "I was so privilieged to share this with my children," Barnettt said as he watched Kathalyn search Utah Beach for tiny sand crabs and mussel shells. "It was an incredible day. These two middle-school aged children probably learned more in Normandy and Flanders Field (the commander's group visited the Flanders Field American Cemetery in Waregem, Belgium, before coming to Normandy) than they ever knew before about the history of what happened here." Barnett joined American Legion Auxiliary National President Sharon Conatser in a day to remember, 72 years after Allied forces stormed the beaches of Normandy and began the continental Europe advance on the Third Reich. They led a wreath-laying ceremony at the Normandy American Cemetery that also included the American Overseas Memorial Day Association, the American Battle Monuments Commission and USAA, The American Legion's preferred provider of financial services. They followed that by participating in an official wreath-laying ceremony at Pointe du Hoc, at the monument perched on the tip of a cliff where U.S. Army Rangers climbed into enemy fire from above them 72 years ago. As was the case at most events through the weekend, the national commander was struck by "the amount of interface we had with senior military leadership, active-duty troops and, most important, the veterans themselves." He was likewise impressed that more often than expected, officers, embassy officials and military troops recognized The American Legion emblem and thanked he and Conatser for all the organization does to support them. "I was taken aback by the prominence The American Legion is given here," Barnett said. "This occurred to me as I was seated between a four-star general and the U.S. Ambassador to France. That speaks volumes about The American Legion's message. It was also incredible the number of Legionnaires from across the country who came up to us to express their appreciation to The American Legion and Auxiliary, as well as local nationals who shared their appreciation that The American Legion family honors those who served, no matter when." Conatser said she saw the D-Day anniversary events and activities as "an entire community of nations coming together. It's really powerful." Paratroopers from several countries were in Normandy to conduct exhibition jumps and to visit the monuments, memorials and graves. "Sharing time with the active-duty military was really important to me," Conatser said. "And, I was really emotional at the Normandy American Cemetery, which caught me a little off guard. The stories of families really resonate with me." An ABMC guide told the story of the cemetery and the more than 9,300 Americans laid to rest there by telling anecdotes and photos of particular families who lost loved ones in the Normandy battles. At Pointe du Hoc, the commander and president spent some of the time waiting for the ceremony to begin by visiting with a bomber pilot who was flying just his sixth mission when the orders came to soften the battlefield on D-Day. "When you think about places like Pearl Harbor and Normandy, you certainly think about all the lives lost," Conatser said. "Then you have to remember what might have happened if not for them." Such is the lesson of Normandy and its observances, for generations who will grow up without ever knowing anyone who served in World War II. By Jeff Stoffer
With over 1,700 VFW Service Officers across the globe, no one understands the frustration of the VA claims process, better than the VFW. The process can be confusing and one that service members and veterans shouldn't try to navigate alone. Since 2007, VFW Life Member, Nathan Weinbaum (and U.S. Navy veteran) has been serving veterans and helping them obtain their earned benefits and compensation in Tennessee as a VFW Service Officer. Over the years, he has helped countless veterans not only obtain their VA benefits, but also obtain honorary high school diplomas and service medals that were never received. VFW Service Officers are the key to success, recovering approximately $1 billion in earned benefits and compensation for veterans each year. But Weinbaum will tell you that "the job as a service officer is much more than sitting at a desk all day long. It's about impacting the lives of the veterans you serve." In 2013, he was awarded the State of Tennessee County Veterans Service Officer of the Year Award and currently serves as the Blount County, Tenn., director of Veterans Affairs/Veterans Service Officer. Weinbaum worked a case several years ago, and noticed a Western Union telegram to the veteran's mother among the veteran's paperwork. It mentioned that he had been wounded in action. After Weinbaum asked where the veteran's Purple Heart was, the veteran responded that he never got one. Weinbaum knew he had a case with the telegram as a piece of support to retrieve the Purple Heart. Since then, Weinbaum has helped three other Purple Heart recipients obtain their medals, assisted six veterans with obtaining honorary high school diplomas, and one Bronze Star Medal for another deserving veteran. "The process to obtain a medal or diploma takes work," explained Weinbaum. "Some of the applications have taken me weeks to complete as I am also working with veterans throughout the day with their claims. With the Purple Hearts, it can take more than a year before the veteran receives a decision." For Weinbaum, it's even more than claims and medals. "Blount County has the only veterans food pantry for a county Veterans Affairs office in the state of Tennessee … Some veterans come to our office hungry, and we can offer them some food. That's rewarding!" Without a doubt, Weinbaum is making a difference in the lives of the veterans in Blount County. With five medal applications and two honorary high school diploma applications in the works, Weinbaum is hard at work giving back to the men and women who have served our country. While he's officially a member of VFW Post 5154, he's also active in VFW Post 10855 because of all of the good work both Posts do for the community. "[I'm] just proud to serve my veterans and the VFW," said Weinbaum. To find a service officer near you, visit: http://www.vfw.org/NVS/.
CONCORD, N.H. (AP) -- Can the cap and gown worn by high school graduates coexist peacefully with military uniforms worn by classmates destined for the armed services? Until recently, the answer in New Hampshire was no. A law went into effect last month allowing graduates the opportunity to wear their uniform at commencement ceremonies if they have completed basic training. New Hampshire joins Pennsylvania and California, which passed similar laws in 2011 and 2009 respectively. The debate about appropriate attire for a rite of passage is not as simple as it seems. The idea of military dress breaking up a uniform sea of school colors speaks directly to deeply held convictions about school spirit, patriotism, the role of the military and the significance of graduation. "I would love for other kids to see this law and be motivated by it. I would like Brandon's Law to be an inspiration for other high school students to strive to succeed and be rewarded for it," said Jessie Kelley, mother of the young man killed in action for whom the New Hampshire law is named. "They are putting their lives on the lines, so I feel it's the least we could do." Her son, Marine Lance Cpl. Brandon Garabrant, fought unsuccessfully to wear his uniform to his 2013 graduation from ConVal Regional High School. The school worried he would outshine his classmates and said the uniform represented achievements beyond the classroom. Reaction was swift and fierce. Commenters raged on Facebook, with some even posting personal details about the principal who denied Garabrant and encouraging emails to him. Reporters camped out at graduation. The brouhaha came into poignant focus when the 19-year-old was killed by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan the following summer. In McHenry, Illinois, last month, Pvt. Megan Howerton was not allowed to walk in her graduation from McHenry West High School when, minutes before the ceremony, she asked to collect her diploma wearing her Marine Corp dress blues. She was told she would have to wear it under her gown, so she chose not to participate. Her case inspired a hashtag, #letmeganwalk, with commenters split between those who felt her service should be recognized and those who argued she should follow school policy as rigidly as military protocol. The Marine Corps Recruiting Station Chicago said in a statement that the decision was rightly left up to the school because "graduations recognize the academic accomplishments of the class and the class's final chapter at that institution." In New Hampshire, Brandon's Law passed with none of the angry words that surrounded his bid. The concerns at legislative hearings included the impact it would have on a school's ability to set policy and a few complaints that uniforms would be a distraction. Kate Williams, a family friend who cut Garabrant's hair for years, led the campaign and put a sign in her salon that said, "Brandon deserves to wear his uniform." Many community members couldn't understand why the school wouldn't make an exception, given what he was doing for the country, she said. Brian Pickering, the principal at Garabrant's school, supports the new law. Even though he also got the blessing from Marines and other veterans for his decision, Pickering said, the threats he endured "nearly ruined my career and family." "I'm thankful for the law because, at the time, there was no law," Pickering said. "There was nothing to fall back upon." Colleges have also dealt with the issue. The Army ROTC at the University of New Hampshire, which covers nine universities, said students can wear military dress or their cap and gown. So far this graduation season, only one New Hampshire high school student is known to have worn a military uniform during graduation - Michael Joy, of Prospect Mountain High School. But he wore it under his gown when he graduated Friday, opting instead for a red sash over his gown representing the Army National Guard. Joy, who will be a member of the military police in the Guard, said he didn't want to stand out from his fellow seniors. "I didn't want to make myself like, 'Oh, I'm better than you guys,'" Joy said. "It could be an opportunity to celebrate patriotism and stuff. But I feel like joining and actually serving, that is my way of showing patriotism. I don't have to wear the uniform to show people that I'm in the service." BY MICHAEL CASEY
In approving its version of the FY 2017 defense authorization bill this week, the House Armed Services Committee included big changes for the military health care system. On the TRICARE fee front, the bill would apply a new fee structure similar to that proposed by the Pentagon for future service entrants, beginning in 2018. However, the bill would grandfather currently serving and retired members and families against the large fee hikes proposed in the Pentagon's FY 2017 defense budget. Fee increases in future years would be indexed by COLA - the percentage increase in military retired pay rather than the (higher) health care inflation index proposed by the DoD. This is in line with MOAA's and The Military Coalition's recommendation. The bill proposes no changes for TRICARE For Life or TRICARE Prime. It envisions changing the current TRICARE Standard program to a preferred provider system with flat-dollar copays for most doctor visits. Retired members and families wishing to stay in this updated version of TRICARE Standard (which would be renamed TRICARE Preferred) would need to enroll annually (no enrollment is required at present). An annual enrollment fee of $100/$200 (single/family) will be required of currently retired members on TRICARE Preferred, but wouldn't start until 2020 - once DoD demonstrates it has improved its capacity to provide timely access to quality care. The most dramatic change would involve placing all military treatment facilities (MTFs) under the direction of the Defense Health Agency, effective Oct. 1, 2018, for purposes of unified policy, administration, and budgeting. MOAA has long supported this proposal based on the cost and inefficiency of building military health care programs around three separate systems for each of the services. The bill also establishes a wide variety of requirements intended to enhance beneficiary access to care. This includes extended hours at MTF's for primary care, providing urgent care until 11 P.M., and authorizing unlimited access to urgent care without a referral. The proposal also creates metrics for quality of care, wait times, provider-to-beneficiary ratios, and provider productivity. In addition, the bill would authorize military facilities to sell durable medical equipment (e.g., hearing aids) at cost to family members of retirees. All in all, MOAA supports the HASC's balanced approach to reforming the military's health care delivery system and especially appreciates the Committee's rejection of the large fee increases proposed in the DoD budget.
DECATUR, TX – Twisted X Boots retail locations throughout the United States will be raising money in support of the Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States from Memorial Day through Independence Day. Twisted X will donate $1 per pair of shoes and $2 per pair of boots bought from its VFW Patriotic Collection back to the VFW. In addition, the company will also promote the VFW “Buddy Poppy” program at participating western retailers during the campaign. All donations will be used by the VFW to extend its vital support and assistance programs to more veterans, service members and their families. “We are happy to donate to the VFW on our own, because it is a very dear cause to me,” said Prasad Reddy, President and CEO of Twisted X, “but we wanted the stores to also be able to participate in the Buddy Poppy program, because it will give them local engagement within their communities.” In addition, retailers will have the option of selling the VFW’s “The U.S. Constitution and Fascinating Facts About It” booklets in their locations ($3.95 value). To date, Twisted X has raised more than $50,000 for the VFW. Reddy presented the first check during the 116th VFW National Convention in 2015. The reason for Reddy’s reverence for the VFW? “When I became a citizen in 1980,” says Reddy, “after I took the oath as a citizen with the judge, I stepped out of the court hall and was greeted by VFW members who welcomed me to America as a citizen and gave me an American Flag and the Constitution booklet.” For more information or images for the retail program, footwear or any of the participating organizations, please visit the Twisted X Facebook page or contact Amber Vanwy. About Twisted X Founded in 2005, Twisted X Brands proudly celebrates more than ten years of delivering handcrafted, design-patented comfortable footwear to its growing customer base of men, women and children. Primarily focused on core western boot styles, the company recently has added an extensive line of comfort casual footwear and licensed accessories to its portfolio. Find out more at www.twistedxboots.com. Contact: Amber Vanwy, Director of Marketing, 740.504.8880, email@example.com
COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (AP) -- President Barack Obama is opposing suggestions the government privatize the Department of Veterans Affairs to improve health care veterans receive. In an interview with the Colorado Springs Gazette (http://tinyurl.com/hsu4k7p ), the president said his administration has made progress modernizing the VA and providing veterans with more timely health care following criticism over wait times. Privatizing the agency would delay that progress, he said. The administration came under fire when it was disclosed that secret wait lists were uncovered at a VA health care system in Arizona amid reports that several veterans had died waiting for health care. Government investigations found significant system failures. "The notion of dismantling the VA system would be a mistake," Obama told The Gazette during an interview on Thursday that was published Sunday. "If you look at, for example, VA health care, there have been challenges getting people into the system. Once they are in, they are extremely satisfied and the quality of care is very high." Obama said during his last term in office, he will continue to work on issues plaguing the Veterans Administration. "It's a big ocean liner, and on any given day, given how far-flung the agency is, we're still seeing problems crop up that we have to correct. I think the main message is that we've still got a lot of work to do. It's an all-hands-on-deck process." Obama appointed a new VA secretary in 2014 after Eric Shinseki resigned. Robert McDonald, former CEO of Procter & Gamble, took his place. "I think Secretary McDonald has done a terrific job," the president said. "Since there's only eight months left in my administration, he's got all the way until then to run through the tape." U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn, R-Colorado Springs, a member of the Veterans Affairs Committee, agreed with Obama that total privatization would be a mistake, but he said veterans need more options, including private care. To cope with the problems, Obama signed the Veterans Access to Care Act that requires the VA to contract with private providers when a clinic isn't within 40 miles of the veteran seeking care or the wait time for care is more than 30 days.
Vietnam Veteran Mike Doherty, once a patient at the Pittsburgh VA, now runs the clothing program there. PHOTO BY BILL GEORGE, PITTSBURGH VA HEALTHCARE SYSTEM. Mike Doherty had a good job driving a truck for a vending machine company. He had a wife and two beautiful daughters; a nice house in a pleasant neighborhood. “I had it all,” he said. “Then it all went away.”DownhillDoherty, a Navy Veteran who served in Vietnam, said things started going downhill after he injured his back at work.“It seemed like I was constantly on pain medication,” he said. “All the medication led to my addiction to painkillers, and to alcohol. I was killing myself, and I was destroying my family. I ended up losing everything: my wife and kids, my job, my house.” The Vietnam vet, then in his mid-50s, found himself sleeping on a friend’s couch.“My friend was a Vietnam vet, like me, and he wanted to help me out,” Doherty said. “I slept on his couch for a year. But even your best friend’s hospitality wears out eventually. Finally one day he said to me, ‘You need help. I’m driving you to the VA.’ And that’s what he did. He drove me to the VA hospital in Pittsburgh.”He added: “My friend’s gone now; he died of throat cancer a few years ago, but he’s the one who gave me the kick in the ass I needed. He was a good friend.”Getting it RightDoherty said he was pleasantly surprised by how he was treated by staff at the Pittsburgh VA’s Highland Drive Campus.“I was apprehensive going in there, but they didn’t judge me,” he said. “They told me they were going to help me. They said, ‘We’ll get it right. We’ll get it right.’ I remember them telling me that over and over.”The Navy Veteran said one VA nurse in particular stands out in his mind.“She was one of the first people I met there,” he said. “She’s a saint. Her name is Mary Francis Pilarski, and she always had a smile. I don’t know how she was able to smile all the time. I remember her because she was just so helpful. She was always there for me.”Green AcresDoherty said it wasn’t long before he was transferred to the Pittsburgh VA’s transitional housing unit in Cowansville, Pa. "It seemed like it was in the middle of nowhere,” he said. “It’s way out in the country, surrounded by farms and cows. It used to be a women’s prison. I guess that’s why my room had a steel door and no windows. But you know what? It was a step up for me. I had been sleeping on someone’s couch and now I had my own room.” Doherty said not all of his fellow patients at Cowansville appreciated the rural aspects of their new environment.“I was raised on a farm, so this felt like I had come home,” he said. “But some of the Veterans couldn’t get out of there fast enough. It’s not for everyone. But I liked it. That’s why I stayed there for two years.” Doherty said volunteers from the Disabled American Veterans (DAV) would drive him and his fellow patients from Cowansville to the Pittsburgh VA’s Center for the Treatment of Addictive Diseases. “We were there every day from 9 to 3,” he explained. “I think I liked group therapy the best. You got to see how other people ended up being in the position they’re in. It gave you some perspective. It made you feel like you weren’t so alone.”Troy PolamaluAll that was 10 years ago. Today Doherty has his own apartment, a black cat named Troy Polamalu (after the former Pittsburgh Steelers’ strong safety), and a classic 1985 Crown Victoria he uses to get around in. Most importantly, he has his two daughters back in his life. “I just tried to progress a little bit at a time, as best I could.” “They turned out great,” he beamed. “I missed out on some of their birthdays and dance recitals when they were growing up, and I have no one to blame for that but me. But they turned out good. One just turned 19 and the other just turned 22.”He added: “I feel lucky I was given a chance. That’s why the VA is so important to me. They gave me a chance, and I’m grateful to them. So now I’m trying to give back. That’s why I’ve spent the last 10 years volunteering here at the VA.” Doherty said that 10 years ago the Pittsburgh VA had no formal clothing program, so he decided to start one.“I know what it’s like to show up here with nothing,” he said. “I look at some of these Vets and I say to myself, ‘That was me.’ They don’t have decent clothes or shoes or a winter coat. Now, whatever item of clothing you need –socks, underwear, anything—we can get it for you. I can’t hold your hand once you leave here, but I can make sure you have proper clothes on your back. I reach out to the VFW, the Purple Heart organization, the American Legion, places like that. They give us all the clothes we need. ”He continued: “Some of the homeless Vets I’ve given clothes to work here now. They’re VA employees. That gives me a good feeling.”The Vietnam Vet, who will soon turn 65, said helping his fellow Veterans is what keeps him going.“It’s what gets me up at 3 o’clock every morning,” he smiled. “I’m here every day handing out clothes. I’m here on holidays. I’m here on Christmas Eve.” By Tom Cramer
As the years roll by since they made their world-changing invasion of France, World War II veterans continue to come back to Normandy where the Allied invasion of June 1944 broke the Axis grip on western Europe and ultimately led to victory in World War II. And each year, among the veterans, are some returning for the first time since they fought here. One such veteran is 93-year-old Ralph Ticcioni of Milwaukee, Wis. The glider-trained member of the 82nd Airborne Division was in Ste. Mere-Eglise Thursday as ceremonies kicked off to celebrate the 72nd anniversary of the D-Day assault that began Europe’s liberation from Nazi Germany. “Never in my wildest dreams would I have expected something like this,” said Ticcioni, who was on a family vacation in Europe and penciled in a visit to Normandy June 2 as part of his plan. The last time he was in Normandy, he explained, “I was scared. Pandemonium is a good word to use for it.” He was the lone World War II veteran at wreath-laying ceremonies Thursday to remember the events at Ste. Mere-Eglise, first French town liberated in the invasion. At monuments to honor the service of the town’s D-Day mayor, Alexandre Renaud, and the sacrifices of fallen airborne soldiers who jumped behind enemy lines ahead of the beach assaults of June 6, 1944, wreaths were laid, speeches were given, and visitors lined up to get Ticcioni’s autograph. Among the speakers at the town-square monument to airborne casualties was U.S. Air Force Lt. Gen. Tim Ray who described the invasion of Normandy as “a tapestry of stories. The list of tales from that day will go on forever.” Ticcioni’s story is typical of the airborne assault that began about an hour into June 6, 1944. He descended through the blustery night sky about five miles from his objective, Ste. Mere-Eglise, and fought through the countryside to the town, which U.S. forces secured just before daylight. He was 22 on the day of the mission. “I didn’t think I would make 23,” he said. Thousands of American troops lost their lives fighting in the days and weeks that followed, a painful memory for the Wisconsin veteran who remembers the postwar challenge of reconciling all he witnessed in combat. “You learn to adjust,” he said. “You realize that life is for the living. We did what we came to do. We never realized what the results would be. Right was on our side. That’s why we won.” Ticcioni saw the results firsthand as French residents and other visitors surrounded the ceremonies, which included a service in the 12th century church on the town square, to express gratitude to the Allied liberators of World War II. “It hits you right here,” Ticcioni said, pressing his right hand over his heart. Following the ceremonies, hundreds of veterans and active-duty Army and Navy personnel gathered for a reception at the Ste. Mere-Eglise city hall where others who fought in World War II soon appeared, joining Ticcioni as the weekend of commemoration kicked off. The 82nd Airborne Division Choir and a U.S. Navy band provided music for Thursday’s activities in Ste. Mere-Eglise. American Legion member Ray Shearer of Indianapolis placed wreaths on behalf of the largest organization of wartime veterans in the United States. Shearer, a member of the American Overseas Memorial Day Association that coordinates Memorial Day events at cemeteries and monuments in Europe each year, will be joined by American Legion National Commander Dale Barnett and American Legion Auxiliary National President Sharon Conatser for ceremonies and remembrances at the Normandy American Cemetery, Pointe du Hoc and Utah Beach as part of the commander’s official visit to the Department of France. By Jeff Stoffer