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The Washington County commissioner and former Hillsboro mayor keynoted the county's Veterans Day ceremony.

PMG PHOTO BY PETER WONG - Commissioner Jerry Willey, right, with his wife Judy, after he gave the keynote address at a Veterans Day ceremony Monday, Nov. 11, at the Washington County Fair Plex in Hillsboro. Willey is a Navy veteran of the Vietnam War.Commissioner Jerry Willey says he chose to offer no dramatic message to more than 150 people gathered for a Veterans Day ceremony Monday, Nov. 11, at the Washington County Fair Complex in Hillsboro.

Willey is a Navy veteran of the Vietnam War, including the final war cruise of the super carrier USS America in the Gulf of Tonkin off Vietnam.

"I do not have any hero stories — no storming the hill, no flying through heavy flak, no holding up the flag while the battle raged. Many of you may have those memories," he said.

"I have only one message for you today: Celebrate life. Know that if you are a veteran, appreciate and accept the recognition you are due. If you are a spouse of a veteran, we say thank you for your support. We could not have served without your support. If you are a child or grandchild of a veteran, say thank you — often — and value your freedom."

Veterans from all five services were represented at the ceremony, which took place at the site of the Washington County Veterans Memorial.

Willey said he was glad he enlisted in the Navy, where he served from 1969 to 1973 — and not just because it was one of the few alternatives for someone classified 1-A in the military draft and available immediately for the Army. The draft has since been abolished.

"I was starting a new four-year chapter in my life and it would significantly change my direction for good," he said.

But as the USS America set sail in June 1972 from the U.S. naval base in Norfolk, Va., Willey recalled that antiwar protesters attempted to block the massive aircraft carrier, which easily went past them out to sea.

"It left a statement with me of our commitment. But at the same time it left a question: Where are we going and what are we doing? Was it worth the price?" Willey said.

"I lost a family member in Vietnam. I hope it was worth the price. Joining the military is never about evaluating whether it was worth the price. It was, and is, about serving your country, protecting the freedoms that we enjoy every day."

In a recent survey conducted by the Pew Research Center, 64% of veterans sampled said the Iraq War was not worth fighting, and 58% said the same about Afghanistan. Both figures were nearly identical to the views of the general public.

"I wonder what the statistics would be if we had that same poll for the Vietnam War," Willey said of a conflict that also started with public support but quickly lost favor. U.S. military deaths in the Vietnam War topped 58,000, far more than the wars in Iraq (4,500) and Afghanistan (2,400 and continuing).

After his Navy service, Willey graduated from Washington State University. He ended up in Hillsboro, where he retired as a certified public accountant in 2010. Willey was elected to the first of two terms as Hillsboro mayor in 2008, and a year ago, was elected to the county commissioner position that Bob Terry vacated in a losing bid for county board chair. (Terry also served on the USS America, but his four-year Navy service predates Willey's by three years.)

PMG PHOTO BY PETER WONG - U.S. Rep. Suzanne Bonamici, D-Ore., after she spoke at a Veterans Day ceremony Monday, Nov. 11, at the Washington County Fair Plex in Hillsboro. Commissioner Jerry Willey, behind Bonamici, gave the keynote address; he is a Navy veteran of the Vietnam War.The father of U.S. Rep. Suzanne Bonamici of Beaverton also served in the Navy.

"I want to assure everyone that this is a coincidence," she said as the audience laughed.

Bonamici quoted from a 1963 Veterans Day proclamation by President John F. Kennedy, who was assassinated just 11 days later, that the day is meant to honor men and women who have served in war and who also seek peace with "patience, perseverance and courage."

"We have more to do to fulfill our commitment to those who have served," she said, including veterans' access to health care, assistance with housing and job placement. "We have more to do in the work ahead to achieve world peace."

State Rep. Janeen Sollman of Hillsboro was born into a Navy family.

Her father served 20 years as a radioman, including a stint on the Mekong Delta on ships ferrying prisoners during the Vietnam War. Her mother was a teletype operator for three years in the women's branch of the U.S. Naval Reserve, known as the WAVES. Of her three siblings, a brother and a sister, plus her husband, also were in the Navy.

Her own husband was in the Navy, as was an uncle who served on the USS Bismarck Sea — named for a World War II battle — and who survived its 1945 sinking off Iwo Jima while supporting the Marine invasion of the Japanese-held island.

Her father died early in 2011, when she was still on the Hillsboro School Board, Later that year, she said, she had the chance to cruise the same Mekong River that her father sailed while in the Navy. She paused, then fought back tears as the audience applauded.

"He was so honored by his time in the service that he requested to be buried at sea," Sollman said.

She herself was born at a hospital in Subic Bay in the Philippines, where there was a big U.S. naval base until it was shut down after the 1991 eruption of Mount Pinatubo.

"I stand before you today carrying the experience of a family," Sollman said. "It is our responsibility to honor the heroes of our past, present and future."

By Peter Wong
Washington County Reporter
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