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Marine Corps vet Sean Clark gives keynote address as Islanders gather for  Veterans Day

In the crowd around the flagpole of American Legion Mitchell Post #281 on Veterans Day morning, a line of youngsters, each holding a section of a folded flag, were passing it along to Legion Commander Dave Clark who stood at the base. As soon as Commander Clark started to hoist the Stars and Stripes, it filled out, standing straight in the windy day.

It was the time-honored start of the Island’s remembrance of its veterans and veterans across the country. Giving the invocation, Father Peter DeSanctis made reference to the fine “spring day,” bringing smiles to the hundred or so people who attended.

On the unseasonably warm, windy and overcast day, the mild weather was the only exception to the somber, simple and at times inspiring ritual that occurs every November.

As always, a group of Shelter Island School students sang the National Anthem, Father DeSanctis spoke of sacrifice and asked for prayers, Chyrs Kestler, a member of the Legion’s Auxiliary and a Gold Star Mother, spoke of teaching youngsters the importance of remembering, and Linda Bonaccorso gave a stirring rendition of “America the Beautiful,” with those in attendance joining in.

Marine Corps veteran and current Shelter Island Police Officer Sean Clark gave the keynote address. (Credit: Ambrose Clancy)

The keynote speaker was Shelter Island Police Officer Sean Clark, a Marine Corps veteran who served eight years, retiring with the rank of captain.  Only the second Islander to graduate from the Naval Academy — the first was decorated Admiral Harold E. Shear — Officer Clark served as far afield as mainland Japan.

He was a platoon commander, stationed out of Camp Lejeune, N.C., responsible for 52 Marines and a fleet of vehicles. He ran the Jungle Warfare Training Center in Okinawa, living in the jungle, directing operations with 22 helicopter landing zones in 17,500 acres of single and double canopy jungle.

Other assignments included duty as an amphibious vehicle officer, moving Marines off Navy ships to deploy on the ground. He has also served as a company executive officer, and was promoted to Marine Headquarters in Quantico, Va., where he became a top manager and training analyst, overseeing all Marine schools and training standards.

In his address to the gathering, he recognized veterans as “men and women who have sacrificed their livelihoods — and many their lives — in defense of something greater than themselves.”

But he also noted that “a veteran’s sacrifice is not always their own. Military families have lived through difficult times and often bear a heavy load at home.”

He touched on three themes, service, sacrifice and support, reminding the gathering that a large majority of veterans don’t stop serving  when they finish their military duties.

“It can be seen throughout our community as local veterans continue their service as volunteers in the EMS and Fire departments, as sports coaches … and members of local government, to name a few,” Officer Clark said. “Their examples serve as inspirations to others and make our community a better place.”

As for sacrifice, Officer Clark reminded Islanders that, for some who wore the uniform of the armed forces, the sacrifices took a toll. “Veterans are at 57% higher risk of suicide than those who have not served, and anywhere between 17 and 44 Veteran lives are lost to suicide every day,” he said. “Post-traumatic stress, traumatic injuries, and feelings of isolation upon re-entering civilian life are just a few of the many complex risk factors. What can we do to help?”

Support, Office Clark said, is an essential part of preventing veterans from taking their own lives, adding, “Whether you served or not, reach out to those veterans in your community and learn more about them. Build a relationship and offer your support. The best way to thank a veteran for their service is not with words, but by exemplifying those ideals of selflessness and dedication to others that many have sacrificed so much to uphold.”

He closed his address with words from President John F. Kennedy, himself a combat veteran of World War II: “As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words, but to live by them.”