Story by PO2 Marc Cuenca on 09/17/2019OAK HARBOR, Wash. Naval Air Station (NAS) Whidbey Island and the Navy Gold Star Program hosted the 4th annual Bells Across America for Fallen Service Members ceremony alongside a Vietnam Veteran "Welcome Home" pinning held at the NAS Whidbey Island's Chief Petty Officer's Club, Sept. 17.
The Bells Across America for Fallen Service Members ceremony is a remembrance event held annually across the nation to honor Sailors who died serving their country and their surviving family members with the reading of their names followed by a tolling of the bell. The ceremony takes place each September in observance of Gold Star Mothers and Families' Day. The Gold Star Program provides support to surviving family members of Sailors who died while on active duty regardless of military branch, location, or manner of death.
This year's Bells Across America event included honoring the Vietnam Veterans in attendance with Cmdr. James Rankin, executive officer of NAS Whidbey Island, citing their service and sacrifice during the Vietnam War.
"Be proud of your service and tell us your story," said Rankin. "The climate has changed and we need to recognize you for what you did for this nation. All of you served and served proudly. Thank you for taking the day to spend with us and odds are if you a Vietnam War veteran, you know a gold star family."
U.S. Marine Corps Corporal (Ret.) Michael G. Reagan attended the event as a guest speaker highlighting the importance of the Fallen Heroes Project that provides families hand-drawn portraits of lost loved ones. Reagan is an internationally-recognized portrait artist who has drawn more than 6,250 portraits of fallen service members in the War Against Terrorism. His portraits are given free of charge to the families to comfort them during their time of grief.
"I wish I didn't have to draw even one of these portraits," said Reagan. "But as I told some Gold Star Sailors I met at Gig Harbor, I was proud that I was allowed to be here with other Vietnam veterans in this room because when I say "Welcome Home", I mean it from the bottom of my heart."
The ceremony progressed with Sailors attached to NAS Whidbey Island, and several tenant commands, presenting each veteran with a Vietnam Veteran lapel pin. The lapel pins were presented to each veteran in recognition of their honor and service while on active duty in the U.S. Armed Forces. Veterans who served on active duty in the U.S. Armed Forces at any time during the period of November 1, 1955, to May 15, 1975, regardless of location, are eligible to receive one.
After the presentation of the Vietnam Veteran lapel pins, Master Chief Petty Officer (Ret.) Bill Conley, Hailey Chittick, Navy Region Northwest Navy Gold Star Coordinator, and Shelby Bassett, Work and Family Consultant of Fleet and Family Support, recognized service members with the Tribute to Our Fallen Rotating Watch which consists of photos of fallen Sailors and biographies written by their families read aloud.
"Today, we remember Explosive Ordnance Technician 1st Class Adam McSween, who has stood the watch the last four months and we honor Navy Diver 2nd Class Jacob Bare, who will stand the watch from September through December 2019," said Chittick.
The ceremony concluded with the reading of fallen Sailors connected to NAS Whidbey Island and the tolling of a bell in their absence. Those who have not been named were given four consecutive bell strikes in their honor.
"Bells Across America is one way that all of us can come together to honor and remember our fallen and open our arms to their families," said Conley. "The names read today represent a few of the many who have paid the ultimate sacrifice for our great nation."