By Becky Wydysh
Chairman, Niagara County Legislature
Over the last few years, I have often used this column to highlight the work Niagara County does to serve our veteran community. I have talked about our Veterans Service Agency (VSA) and how it can help veterans access the benefits they earned; I have promoted our Thank-A-Vet program that provides discounts for veterans with many local businesses; and I have discussed the county’s efforts to become a Purple Heart County and recognize all of those who were wounded or killed as a result of enemy action while serving in the U.S. military.
The fact is the Niagara County Legislature feels a strong obligation to honor those who have defended our freedoms. That’s why this past Aug. 6, on the front lawn of the Niagara County Courthouse in Lockport, was such a memorable day as we held our third Purple Heart ceremony.
Several years ago, Niagara County Clerk Joe Jastrzemski – who oversees the VSA and has really been at the forefront of all our veterans’ recognition efforts – created a Purple Heart Book with the goal to record the name of every resident who ever earned this great honor defending our freedoms in our nation’s conflicts. We had more than 300 names in that book, but continued to encourage more people to come forward. At the Aug. 6 event, we were able to recognize another 109 individuals who earned the Purple Heart. Many of these were deceased, and it was a child or grandchild who brought their name forward so that their family member’s honor will never be forgotten. There were about a dozen living Purple Heart winners in attendance, and the crowd of close to 500 people gave them a tremendous ovation.
The event featured a keynote address by Rocky Bleier, a Purple Heart veteran and four-time Super Bowl winner with the Pittsburgh Steelers. If you are not familiar with Rocky’s story, I encourage you look him up on the internet and read about the tremendous courage that earned him the Purple Heart and the struggle he went through to overcome his injuries and return to professional football.
A big thank you for Vietnam Veterans of American Niagara County Chapter No. 268 for bringing Mr. Bleier to the event. The renowned Tonawanda American Legion Band also entertained the large crowd with a host of patriotic songs.
Perhaps the biggest highlight of the event was the unveiling of the Purple Heart memorial on the front lawn of the courthouse. In November 2021, the Niagara County Legislature unanimously adopted a resolution to form a Purple Heart Memorial Committee to study and report back to the legislature with recommendations on building a permanent monument to honor all Niagara County Purple Heart recipients. After two years of great work by the committee, the community got to see the results of their efforts.
I want to acknowledge and thank those who served on our committee: Richard Clark, U.S. Marine, 1985-92; Jeff Glatz: U.S. Air Force, 1973-77; Ken Hamilton, U.S. Navy, 1971-84 USN/USN Reserves; Kathryn Kindle: U.S. Army, 21 years; Ron Krul: U.S. Army, 1966-68; Keith Newton, U.S. Army, 1984-2005; Mike Targon, U.S. Marine Corps, 1968-70. The committee was chaired by Legislator David Godfrey, a Vietnam combat veteran. I also want to thank our design firm, Nussbaumer & Clarke, in particular Barb Frankiewicz, senior engineer, for her tremendous effort during this process.
The memorial is comprised of a small courtyard and several monuments that list the names of all our Purple Heart awardees. It is readily accessible to visitors, and just a very short walk from the courthouse parking lot for those who may have mobility issues.
As Legislator Godfrey said during his remarks, our hope is that the memorial becomes a place of reflection and reverence for the community, and a “Place of Honor” for each of the individuals who sacrifices for our nation are forever enshrined there.
If you have not yet had a chance to visit, I hope you will.