USS Constitution commander honors veterans at Northeastern ceremony


Erin Fine

Commander Billie J. Farrell speaks on Veteran’s Day at the Northeastern Veterans’ Memorial. Farrell recounted the USS Constitution’s history and spoke of the enduring spirit of the country.

Erin Fine, news staff

A crowd of veterans, students and military families alike gathered at Northeastern’s Veterans Memorial in Neal F. Finnegan Plaza for a Veterans Day event Nov. 11. Speakers shared history, humor and grief with the crowd — a small glimpse into the vast experiences of veterans.

Keynote speaker Commander Billie J. Farrell, the first female captain of the 225-year-old warship USS Constitution, gave a historical account of the ship. The ship still sails to this day with a crew of 80 active-duty sailors, visiting Boston Harbor seven times per year.

“Our mission is to preserve, promote and protect the legacy of the ship,” Farrell said. “We have been entrusted to continue telling the USS Constitution story and what she represents.”

Farrell spoke of the ship’s storied history, comparing its centuries at sea and in battle to the enduring spirit of the country.

“While USS Constitution has not been present for the entirety of the history of our country, she has been here for a significant period of it,” Farrell said. “Even when conflicts arose that she did not directly serve in, she remained in loyal service to the country, a dedicated symbol of patriotism and all who take an oath to serve and defend the Constitution of the United States America.”

Farrell recounted the ship’s signature battle against the British HMS Guerriere in the War of 1812.

“Captain Isaac Hull had been preparing the crew of USS Constitution for weeks, running gun drills for hours a day,” Farrell said. “He wanted to make sure his crew would be ready when called upon. The crew’s training and attention to detail found them prepared for battle. They could move their guns faster than their adversaries and fire with more accuracy.”

The cannonball fire could not pierce the Constitution’s hull, while the British vessel suffered heavy losses. Upon seeing the Constitution deflect the fire, a sailor cried, “Huzzah, her sides are made of iron!” and gave the ship its famous nickname, “Old Ironsides.”

“While the mission of USS Constitution has changed over the years, her story has and continues to be written by those that share her legacy, that come to walk her decks and that come to remember those who have served,“ Farrell said. “USS Constitution is a symbol of our citizens’ unswerving perseverance and dedication, and a living testament to all who have served the United States and to all that have taken an oath to support and defend the Constitution.”

Fifth-year industrial engineering student and Army veteran Christian Etherton acted as the master of ceremonies. Etherton also serves as the president of the Student Veterans Organization. He spoke of his time as a foreign-language code-breaker, and how he often reflects on his time in military intelligence.

“These days I’m doing what a lot of students do during their final semester of college: applying for jobs,” Etherton said. “In a recent job interview, the interviewer asked me to describe a time when I displayed agility … I think back to tense times with my fellow operators, usually at odd hours of the night. Despite our differences, we were so tight and developed such reliance on each other. We lived these values — resilience, agility, flexibility.”

Other speakers called on their experiences as veterans — what their histories meant, and how it affects them to this day. Air Force veteran, Northeastern graduate and Director of the Dolce Center for the Advancement of Veterans and Servicemembers Andy McCarty asked the crowd why they gather every year to remember the past. He answered that, more than recalling history, the greater meaning of Veterans Day lies in the daily experiences of veterans.

“To this day I continue to unpack what I learned and went through in those 48 months of service, and maybe that’s part of the reason we’re here,” McCarty said. “Not because the events of the past have changed. Instead, what they have to teach us is made anew in the context of our present day, and that present is always changing.”

“I wanted to be a part of an organization that was focused on honor, courage and commitment,” said Jack Cline, Northeastern’s vice president for federal relations and a retired Marine. Cline’s father and grandfather served in the military, and he spoke of his childhood dream of becoming a Marine to follow in their footsteps.

“Something bigger than myself,” Cline said. “An organization focused on attention to detail, self-reliance and unwavering execution of orders.”

Neal Finnegan, the namesake of the memorial plaza, presented the Joseph Hefflon Yellow Ribbon Award — named for a Northeastern graduate who died in World War I. Northeastern graduate and Army veteran Ryan Vanderweit received the award to honor his contributions to the Northeastern veterans’ community.

Vanderweit directs the New England Warrior Health and Fitness Program, a free offering for service members, veterans and their families that focuses on cultivating physical and mental well-being. The program is provided by Home Base, a national nonprofit through Massachusetts General Hospital and the Boston Red Sox that seeks to provide mental health care to service members and veterans.

Amid the flair of the ceremony and memories passed between veterans, Cline recalled the most central part of Veterans Day — to “recognize the service of every man and woman who stepped forward, raised their right hand and swore to support and defend the Constitution against all enemies foreign and domestic. A solemn oath like no other.”