Tony Ssonko, a corporal in the United States Marine Corps who served in America's most recent wars, is one of many who appreciate Norwalk's new Veterans Hall of Honor.
"I think it's very neat," Ssonko said after a ceremony Thursday evening in which the Veterans Hall of Honor was officially dedicated before a crowd of about 200 in City Hall's Concert Hall. "It's a lot of stuff you can't even put a value on."
The Veterans Hall of Honor, which occupies a long hallway off the main entrance to City Hall, includes photographs, uniforms, patches, hats, medals, weapons, old newspapers and memorabilia donated by Norwalk residents who served in wars beginning in World War I. A television mounted on a wall shows a roughly 10-minute video that flashes photographs of city veterans alongside their names.
Thomas Mount, a sergeant in the U.S. Marines who served with Ssonko in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, said the collection of memorabilia was impressive.
"They've got a little bit of everything. It's a very unique collection," he said.
Mount said the collection includes memorabilia from all branches of the U.S. Armed Forces, though he added, "We're all brothers in arms. It's not like a football team."
The Veterans Hall of Honor is a tribute to Norwalk residents who served in wartime, and the collection, as well as the video, will change from time to time, according to Karen Doyle Lyons, chairwoman of the Veterans Hall of Honor Committee, and Rachelle Hayes, a desktop technician in the city's Information Technology Department, who shot the video.
Lyons said the current Veterans Hall of Honor includes 1,000 pieces of memorabilia from 300 to 400 Norwalk veterans and that the Hall will change as more memorabilia is donated and displayed. Hayes also plans to shoot more videos that can be shown on the wall-mounted TV.
"I have hundreds and hundreds of photographs people brought in," Hayes said, adding there was no way all of the photographs could be displayed in one video.
Lawrence Cafero, who served in the U.S. Army from 1943 to 1945, said the collection was "very impressive."
"I'm just amazed at the amount of contributions made by the various veterans," Cafero said, adding that he was particularly interested in medals, watches and pocket watches because he served in a stateside precision instrument department that repaired them.
Charlie Williams, who served in the U.S. Army during the Vietnam era, said he knew many of the veterans whose photographs and memorabilia are on display.
"For me, it's quite a thing because I know so many of these people. I'm a native Norwalker," Williams said. "It's a nice thing to see. It brings back memories."
Most of the memorabilia is from World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War, but more memorabilia from recent wars may be added.
"We're trying to get veterans from other eras, especially the new veterans, to give us pictures so we can make this more complete," Hayes said. "It's an evolutionary display... . The videos will change and the displays will change."
Ssonko and Mount said they could probably donate uniforms but the U.S. Department of Defense no longer allows soldiers to bring back memorabilia from war, so some of the items now in the display, such as Japanese cigarettes and a Russian machine gun, won't have modern-day equivalents.
State Rep. Lawrence F. Cafero Jr. (R-Norwalk), who served as emcee for the dedication of the Veterans Hall of Honor, said the city initially planned to hold Thursday evening's ceremony in the City Hall atrium, and, after that, in the City Hall community room. But Cafero said the high level of interest from Norwalk residents required that the ceremony be held in the Concert Hall.
During the ceremony, Norwalk Mayor Richard A. Moccia thanked veterans "who have given so much to our freedom ... who braved the line of fire and fought hour after hour, day after day, to preserve the liberties we hold dear."
"We give thanks to the courageous men and women who put their lives on the line to protect us," Moccia said.
The younger Cafero said more than 170 Norwalk residents have paid the ultimate price for their country, and he gave special recognition to the two most recently killed in combat: U.S. Army Spc. Wilfredo Perez Jr., who was killed July 26, 2003 in Iraq, and U.S. Army Spc. David R. Fahey Jr., who was killed Feb. 28, 2011 in Afghanistan.
Lyons said her wish was that everyone who visits the Veterans Hall of Honor, which was created entirely through donations, will reflect "on the many servicemen and women who have given so very much to our country."
"Veterans sacrifice their youth, depart their families and too many made the ultimate sacrifice for us. They have stood guard over our freedom and our flag so we could enjoy liberty. We are the benefactors of their heroic efforts," Lyons said to the crowd in the Concert Hall. "It is only right and just that we thank a veteran every day. They really deserve it -- and so much more."
Lyons said the Veterans Hall of Honor was the fulfillment of an 11-year dream of hers and that Moccia gave the go-ahead for the tribute about two months ago.
Cafero Jr. said many municipalities are proud, thankful and grateful of veterans. "But no one does it like the city of Norwalk. We love our veterans," he said.