BY DEAN MOSES
Unable to celebrate Veterans Day in person due to the uptick in COVID-19 cases throughout the borough, Queens District Attorney Melinda Katz hosted a special virtual ceremony through Zoom on Tuesday, Nov. 10.
Katz was joined by fellow elected officials and notable figures in order to commemorate the sacrifices made by four individuals who served in the armed forces, while also thanking the 58,815 veterans who live in Queens, the borough with the most veterans.
The tribute began with a video of Francis Lewis High School JROTC’s color guard presenting the flags followed by U.S Army Colonel Paul Schottenhamel, who recited the Pledge of Allegiance to all those watching from the comfort of their homes. Next the Connolly sisters performed a rendition of the national anthem, which encouraged all those on camera to give a round of applause.
As the event commenced, the district attorney was joined by her co-host for the evening and Acting Queens Borough President Sharon Lee, who began the celebration by stating her wish for the program to be held in person.
“It is my honor and privilege to co-host this rather unconventional observance of Veteran’s Day. We hoped that it would not have to be virtual but of course we stay virtual, we stay safe, we stay masked up, we stay socially distant, washing our hands and getting tested. We do all that today so that we may observe together in person next year,” Lee said.
In addition to Lee, guest speakers included Senator Joseph Addabbo, Congresswoman Grace Meng, Assembly Member Stacey Pheffer Amato (who was also joined by her mother and Queens County Clerk Hon. Audrey I. Pheffer), Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul and Judge Scott Dunn, who offered their congratulations to the honorees and gratitude to all the men and women who have served.
The annual ceremony selects prominent Queens-based veterans and awards them with a framed citation. This year, four individuals were chosen to be honored, the first of which being United States Army veteran Detrel Howell, who enlisted in 1987.
During Howell’s service she was deployed to Saudi Arabia from 1990-1991. Last year, while working for her master’s degree she also established United in Sisterhood, an organization dedicated to helping female veterans.
“I am humbled to be included in this honor with other great veterans who fought courageously in combat, I salute each of you. I am a combat veteran who proudly served during Desert Storm, I returned psychically broken and emotionally scarred. I jumped when I would hear fireworks and sirens at the firehouse, and that continues on to this very day. After nearly 30 years, God helped me to define my purpose, I launched the organization United in Sisterhood to support, inspire, and encourage female veterans,” Howell said.
Queens Borough President Sharon Lee then introduced the next honoree, Sergeant Lee Blackman, a Vietnam war veteran who enlisted in the United State Marine Core at age 19. While on activity duty on Sept. 8, 1970, during Operation Pickens Forest, his platoon received enemy fire and he was shot twice. It is Blackman’s sacrifice and determination that was honored with a purple heart.
“It’s an honor and I am blessed to be back home and to be selected as an honoree. I’m overwhelmed, and I’m trying to find the words, but there couldn’t be no better day. Today is the Marine Corps’ birthday, celebrating the men who didn’t show back home. I appreciate your gratitude for the community and for the service that veterans have done, there’s no way to say thank you. Thank the guys that made it back home. I’m just overwhelmed, and I appreciate it,” Blackman said.
In addition to veterans honored during the Zoom presentation, Queens District Attorney Melinda Katz took the time to commemorate John Keeley, a detective from her office who also currently serves in the United States Coast Guard as an investigator first class.
Keeley was humbled and proud to be recognized among such amazing individuals.
“I was a detective with the NYPD for almost 23 years. I was serving at Ground Zero at the morgue and I said I wanted to join something. I thought of it before, I got in right under the wire. I was 39 years old, the oldest guy in bootcamp,” he said.
The final honoree went to Sergeant Gerard Michael Opitz, a Richmond Hill-born veteran who served in World War II as a gunner in the United States Army. He was trained in photography, and while stationed in England as a member of the Eighth Airforce 389th Bomber Group 564th Squadron, he flew with the B24 Liberators as an aerial recognizance photographer.
“Thank you for this evening honoring the vets. It’s unfortunate we can’t honor those who never made it,” Opitz said.
The virtual event concluded with a moment of silence as viewers submitted the names of individuals into the Zoom chat who they wanted to be remembered.