It was an emotional and meaningful time for the Shelton families recently honored at Connecticut’s annual National Commander’s Dinner and Blue Star ceremony at Sutter-Terlizzi American Legion Post 16 in Shelton.
Kathy Hudak of Shelton was one of several parents who were recipients of Blue Star banners, decals and certificates that recognize a family member serving in the U.S. armed forces.
Hudak’s son, Stephen Hudak III, is an E2 apprentice in the U.S. Navy, stationed at Naval Station Norfolk in Virginia aboard the USS Harry S. Truman.
“He went into the Navy because his grandfather was in World War II,” Hudak said, fighting back tears. “They served 70 years apart.”
Her son shares his name with his grandfather. “I feel very proud,” she said, adding that she will display the banner “right in my front window.”
‘Recognizing the families’ sacrifice’
The Blue Star program is “our way of recognizing the families’ sacrifice,” said Mike Kellett of Shelton, a Post 16 member, former post commander and Blue Star program coordinator.
Kellett was on hand at the ceremony to welcome the families and introduce them to Michael D. Helm, the national commander of the American Legion, who presented the banners and certificates.
“It’s great to be here,” said Helm, who is from Kansas. “I’m a Blue Star dad. My son and daughter are deployed. It’s great to have people remember those who are serving. It touches me.”
The first Blue Star service banner was designed during World War I and the program thrived through World War II. It remained dormant until its revival after the patriotism upsurge during the wars in the Middle East and the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
Blue Star parent Sandra Rochon showed off her “Army Mom” tattoo as she waited for the ceremony to begin.
She and her husband, Ray Rochon, received a certificate of appreciation for their son Pfc. Justin Rochon, 20, who is stationed in Alaska and plans to re-enlist.
“It’s really nice they do this,” Ray Rochon said. “I think it’s an honor.”
Carrie and John Rizzo of Shelton, whose son Jeffrey, 29, is a petty officer first class in the U.S. Navy, called the Blue Star tribute “a terrific honor.”
Jeffrey Rizzo enlisted 11 years ago and has been stationed in Groton on the USS California for five years.
National commander’s role
Post 16 member Walter Bills, who received a Blue Star banner 15 years ago to honor his son, Steven Bills, was upbeat about the ceremony.
“With the national commander visiting it’s fantastic,” said Bills, a Shelton resident.
A national commander is expected to visit every state during the yearlong term of office, Kellett said.
The American Legion’s Department of Connecticut Leadership chooses a local Legion post to host the commander, and this year the Shelton group got the nod.
The Blue Star ceremony began when the honored guests, followed by the post’s honor guard, marched to the front of the room.
After prayers by the post chaplain and words from post Commander David Gallagher, Helm presented certificates, banners and decals to the Blue Star parents.
Helm addressed the audience, discussing national security and citizenship, and emphasizing the importance of supporting military personnel and families.
Sheryl and Andy Dutkanicz of Shelton received Blue Star recognition for their son Dymitri, a U.S. Army captain stationed at Fort Lewis in Seattle.
Dymitri Dutkanicz, 29, is the first in their family to serve in active duty. “I’m very proud of him,” his mother said.
Dutkanicz went to Iraq when he was 18, in 2004, then returned to the University of Connecticut, where he served in ROTC. After graduating, he was deployed to Afghanistan.
One thing would have made the Blue Star ceremony even better for the Dutkanicz family. “We wish Dymitri was here,” his father said.