By Jim Sullivan
---- — NEWBURYPORT — A manmade sea of red, white and blue flowed across the Bartlet Mall yesterday as the Exchange Club of Greater Newburyport dedicated the fourth annual Field of Honor.
The flags, over 300 of them this year, were first placed on the Mall in 2009 as a way to commemorate the anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the lives lost both on that day and in the ensuing military actions since.
But the parameters have now broadened and are not limited to the military. Firefighters, police officers, EMTs, volunteers, anyone who inspires can be honored with a flag.
“There’s no reason to stop there,” said Exchange Club President Mary Sortal. “We all have people in our lives who have made an impact and we all have people we want to remember. And although the focus is certainly on 9/11 and those people who were innocent victims and those people who serve, we have expanded it. It’s a whole humanity thing.”
Although in the past two years Sortal dedicated flags to her uncle and father for their military service, this year Sortal dedicated a flag her late niece, Katie Orlow.
“She got ill when she was 16 months old and was left handicapped for the rest of her life,” Sortal said of Orlow. “She passed away at 26 years old and the most important thing in helping my sister move on is to let her know that we have not forgotten about her (daughter).”
“Every flag is really a unique story,” said Exchange Club president-elect, Ben Iacono. “It has a unique message behind its dedication. It’s scheduled around the 9/11 anniversary but it’s not exclusively for 9/11. It’s really an opportunity for the community to honor those who made sacrifices for them. Somebody that has done something meaningful.”
Joining Sortal and Iacono among other honored guests were Newburyport Mayor Donna Holaday, state Sen. Kathleen O’Connor Ives and keynote speaker, Salvation Army Lt. Jeffrey Brunelle.
“It’s just about bringing people together as a community,” Holaday said of the dedication ceremony. “It’s a really beautiful event, but I’m so glad it has been able to be an annualized ceremony.”
The bombings during the Boston Marathon this year also highlighted the importance of those who would rush in where others fear to tread, and the first two flags dedicated were for the victims of that tragedy as well as the school shootings in Newtown, Conn., late last year.
“Unfortunately in light of the tragedies we had this year,” said Holaday, “we have this Field of Honor to recognize veterans and those first responders and that just touches really deep this year.”
“Life is fleeting and fragile and we all have a role to play in making the time we have with each other a time of peace,” said O’Connor Ives. “We must also be mindful of the precarious times we are living in now, where innocent people are being harmed and killed and our nation is contemplating new intervention and the prospect of war. There are difficult decisions ahead. We need to remember the high price we pay with war and always make our voices heard.”
For the fourth year, Newburyport resident Nancy Jean Eagan dedicated a flag to her son, Matthew, who is currently serving in the Army and a sophomore at Norwich University.
“It reminds me of what a sacrifice all of these people have made,” said Eagan, “whether they be military or civilian. And as a mom it makes me proud of Matthew.”