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WEST SPRINGFIELD — American Legion Post 207 hosted a ceremony on March 25 to unveil a sign designating Route 20 in West Springfield as the “Massachusetts Medal of Honor Highway.” The sign, at 83 Park Ave., was sponsored and paid for by the Massachusetts Military Order of the Purple Heart, and is part of an effort to put up similar signs in every Massachusetts town and city along the highway corridor.

“The idea is just to get the community more involved, more recognition of the importance of, the significance of the Medal of Honor,” said American Legion Commander Jeff Zaleski.

Presenters at West Springfield’s “Massachusetts Medal of Honor Highway” sign ceremony bow their heads in prayer on March 25. Pictured from left are Bryan Burlingham, Patrick Asta-Fererro, Billy Hearn, Jeff Zaleski and Mayor William Reichelt.
Reminder Publishing photo by Tyler Lederer

The Medal of Honor is the highest award a military service member can receive. Since it was created by the Navy in 1861, 3,517 people in all military branches have been awarded, said American Legion Post 207 rider Billy Hearn at the ceremony. Only 19 have received it twice and 618 have received it posthumously. He said 40% of medals were awarded during the Civil War. Massachusetts veterans have received 265 medals, making it the third most awarded state. As of Jan. 24, he said, in the whole country, only 63 recipients are still alive.

Mayor William Reichelt read an official proclamation declaring March 25 Medal of Honor Day in the town. March 25 was officially designated Medal of Honor Day by Congress in 1990. The sign honors West Springfield veterans who have received the medal, the proclamation said.

Edwin Leonard is the only West Springfield resident to receive the medal, said Historical Commission member Bryan Burlingham. He was awarded in 1864 for his actions as part of the 37th Massachusetts Infantry during the Civil War. He is buried in Meetinghouse Hill Cemetery, also known as the White Church Cemetery. A photo of his gravestone was dedicated to the Legion at the ceremony.

The ceremony also included prayers led by Minister Patrick R. Asta-Fererro. As well, Zaleski honored Massachusetts Metal of Honor recipient and fellow service member Jared Monti, who died while serving in Afghanistan. A flag from Honor and Remember, an organization that honors fallen service members, was also raised.

State Sen. John Velis (D-Westfield) and state Rep. Michael Finn (D-West Springfield) were in attendance, with Finn helping to pull the cover off the sign.

In November 2022, Massachusetts became the 12th and final state to designate Route 20 as the “Medal of Honor Highway.” The legislation, signed by then-Gov. Charlie Baker, was sponsored by Velis and state Sen. Jake Oliveira (D-Ludlow). Route 20 stretches from Kenmore Square in Boston across the continent to Newport, Oregon, the state where the campaign originated.

“We thought that the highest military honor should be associated with the longest highway in the country,” said Brian Willette, commander of the Massachusetts Military Order of the Purple Heart.

Dedication ceremonies took place in August 2023 in Palmer and in Kenmore Square, where signs were unveiled for both communities.

Unlike in other states, the Massachusetts Military Order of the Purple Heart bought smaller, “town-sized” signs, so individual towns and cities could conduct their own ceremonies, Willette said.

All signs are sponsored and paid for by the Purple Heart organization. They cost no more than $125, he said; the organization spent $1,800 total on signage.

Reichelt said West Springfield was interested in a sign because Route 20 runs through it.

“We’re already a Purple Heart town and this ties right into it,” he said.

Zaleski said three more signs should be erected in the next few weeks. New signs will be placed by the Westfield border, and near Mittineague Park. Route 20 in West Springfield traverses Park Avenue, Park Street, Elm Street and Westfield Street.

“I’m happy to put up however many signs they want,” Reichelt said.

Besides West Springfield, signs currently exist in Palmer, Wilbraham, Westfield and Pittsfield. Willette said the Military Order of the Purple Heart is working to bring signs to other Western Massachusetts communities along the route, like Springfield, Chester, Huntington and Russell. Willette said the goal is to have signs in every Massachusetts town along Route 20, though he said it may take several years, since his organization is based in Western Massachusetts. Nonetheless, the organization welcomes the “longevity of the process,” he said.

“It’s important that people have that visual reminder as they pass them that others have paid a high price for their freedom,” he said.

tlederer@thereminder.com | + posts