Great Barrington — It’s a small but meaningful consolation for having lost a loved one to military service. But it no doubt means a lot to surviving family members to be recognized, albeit belatedly, for their sacrifice.
And that’s precisely what happened Saturday morning (October 21) in Great Barrington Town Hall, as four families from southern Berkshire County received the Massachusetts Medal of Liberty. Emceeing the event was state Rep. William “Smitty” Pignatelli. The medals were presented by the adjutant general of the Massachusetts National Guard, Major General Gary W. Keefe.
Keefe, who hails from the Florence section of Northampton, told the 50 or so people in attendance, including a military color guard, “Anytime I can stay kind of close to home, it’s always a great day for me. But when we can actually honor four fallen heroes from western Massachusetts, it’s truly a special day.”
Keefe said the medal of liberty “was designed specifically to resemble slightly the purple heart” — a military decoration awarded in the name of the president to those wounded or killed while serving the U.S military.
The Medal of Liberty is awarded by the governor of Massachusetts, as the commander-in-chief of the state, to the next of kin of servicemen and women killed in action or who died as a result of wounds suffered in action.
“First of all, for those of us in Western Mass., Florence is really central Mass.,” Pignatelli said to much laughter.
Pignatelli said he encouraged the four families to apply to receive the distinction through the Office of the Adjutant General and continued to work with the office to organize the event to honor the service-members in time for Veterans’ Day.
The four fallen heroes were: Army Specialists Michael C. Whalen and David Nutt; Army Chief Warrant Officer Stephen M. Wells; and Francesco Baldassare, who served in the Navy during World War II. Several surviving family members of the fallen soldiers were present to accept their loved one’s medal.
One of the highlights of the ceremony was when Jada McKie, a sixth-grader at Monument Valley Regional Middle School, sang the Star-Spangled Banner. McKie sang at a campaign event for Pignatelli last year.
“Jada sang God Bless America at an event I had in August and did a fantastic job,” said Pignatelli, named after his father’s best friend, William Smith, who was killed during World War II. “The national anthem is even harder but you really did a heck of a job. I’m glad a young person took control of that.”
Whalen, a native of Lee, was a medic in a search-and-clear operation in the province of Quang Ngai and died after his company came under intense hand-grenade, small-arms and automatic weapons attack on Feb. 28, 1969.
North Egremont resident Wells, then 29, was assigned to the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment, Fort Carson, Colo. He was killed Feb. 25, 2004, when the OH-58 helicopter in which he was flying crashed in Habbinayah, Iraq.
Nutt, originally from Lenox, died as a result of a vehicle crash when he was driving a five-ton Army vehicle as part of a convoy and a civilian car cut him off on May 14, 2003, near Mosul, Iraq, only two months after his deployment. It was also the same day his four-year-old daughter Em was admitted to a hospital at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, suffering from pneumonia. Pignatelli said he missed what turned out to be an important vote at the Statehouse in Boston in order to attend Nutt’s funeral.
Baldassare was 21 when he died while serving in the Navy during World War II. He is buried in Honolulu. His sister Irene Norton Baldassare is the last surviving sibling and was on hand to receive the medal on behalf of the family.
In closing, Pignatelli urged attendees to consider “the memories lost. These young men were married and they left behind children. They never saw their grandchildren. They didn’t experience so many of the things that we take for granted but they are forever in our hearts.”
Pignatelli said for 70 years his father John has had two photographs on his dresser: one of his wife and another of his father’s his best friend and Pignatelli’s namesake, William “Smitty” Smith, then 19.
“That’s the image I have of this young man that I never met,” Pignatelli said. “Those are the images that I hope that you have of the heroes in your own lives.
“The sacrifices are real, the impact on the families is real and as we approach Veterans Day in a couple of weeks, I hope that we all pause and say thanks … That’s all they want.”
See video below of Pignatelli and Maj. Gen. Keefe, making opening remarks and presenting members of the Nutt family with the medal of liberty in honor the late Army Specialist David T. Nutt:
See video below of Pignatelli and Keefe presenting members of the Whalen family with the medal of liberty in honor the late Army Specialist Michael C. Whalen: