International bond of grief

SARANAC LAKE – Nearly 150 people gathered for Anzac Day at this village’s World War I monument Friday to remember Australian Army Capt. Paul McKay, who died unexpectedly on nearby Scarface Mountain at the beginning of this year.

Dan Nolin, a member of the Patriot Guard Riders, traveled from Hudson Falls to Saranac Lake to “show honor, dignity and respect for our fallen.”

That was the feeling that brought many Americans and some Australians together as the countries’ flags were intertwined on a flagpole that windless morning.

“Today we are not a half a world away; we are one,” Mayor Clyde Rabideau said in his opening remarks.

Anzac Day, April 25, is a national holiday in Australia and New Zealand to honor those who served and died in war.

The U.S. national anthem was sang by Katie Morgan and the Australian national anthem by Jeanine Swinyer. An invocation was spoken by the Rev. Mark Reilly, pastor of St. Bernard’s Catholic Church.

Red replica poppies were handed out by organizers and worn by members of the audience. Earlier in the morning, a group climbed to the top of Scarface Mountain and laid a single poppy at the site near where McKay died, to fulfill the wish of his friend.

A few Australians were in attendance. Maj. Cameron Satrapa of the Australia Defence Force and Lt. Commander Kathryn McCabe of the Royal Australian Navy traveled here from Washington, D.C. There were also some Australian students who study at North Country Community College. A pair of soccer players held an Australian flag during the memorial.

“It’s a service we celebrate every year back home,” said Drew Garamaut of Perth, Australia. “It’s great to celebrate it here.”

David Newlands of Adelaide, Australia, had heard about the death of McKay from his mother. She read it in a newspaper.

“He’s from my home city,” Newlands said. McKay was also from Adelaide.

McKay, a 31-year-old veteran of the war in Afghanistan, came without notice to Saranac Lake in late December, stayed at a hotel and emailed his father, saying he was leaving him his possessions. He was last seen alive on New Year’s Eve, walking toward Ray Brook. After an extensive search he was found dead on Jan. 15 on Scarface Mountain in Ray Brook. A coroner ruled his death suicide by hypothermia.

Tears fell from some faces in the crowd Friday when McCabe read aloud a letter from McKay’s parents, Angela and John McKay.

“We would like to thank the community of Saranac Lake for taking the time today to honor Anzac Day and the significance that it holds to Australians and New Zealanders, and in particular our defense personnel,” McCabe read from the letter, which was published in the Opinion section of Friday’s Enterprise. “And especially we want to sincerely thank the amazing community of Saranac Lake as a whole for the outstanding care and compassion they showed to our dear son, Paul.

“Sadly, Paul was never the same when he returned from Afghanistan. He retreated into himself and lived in a world of silence and sorrowful memories.” McCabe paused to compose herself and read on. “It was tremendously sad for us, as his family, who could remember such a fun, loving person, to see him with no life in his face and no light in his eyes.”

“It’s very moving, to have the privilege to read the letter from his mother,” McCabe told the Enterprise after the memorial concluded. “The words were extremely moving.”

U.S. Rep. Bill Owens, a former Air Force captain at the Plattsburgh airbase, spoke briefly, saying the country should dedicate the resources necessary to care for veterans.

“It is incredibly important we understand the sacrifice in all wars we fought,” Owens said, “particularly today of our Australian allies.”

Billy Jones, chairman of the Franklin County Legislature, read a message from Gov. Andrew Cuomo praising Saranac Lake’s recognition of Anzac Day in light of McKay’s death.

Speakers at Anzac Day shined a light on the effect post-traumatic stress has on soldiers of all nationalities. McKay is believed to have been suffering from post-traumatic stress due to his combat experience in Afghanistan.

Retired Brig. Gen. Loree Sutton of the U.S. Army spoke on the topic, saying it’s still unknown whether it causes people to commit suicide.

“PTS is as old as war itself,” Sutton said. “It has no respect for race, religion, national origin, class or rank.

Sutton said that on this day, McKay is a New Yorker and a member of the North Country community.

“You are a son of the village of Saranac Lake,” Sutton said.

McKay’s parents plan to visit and scatter his ashes atop Scarface Mountain this summer.

Also for Anzac Day, Homeward Bound Adirondacks – a group seeking to establish retreat and respite programs for recent war veterans in the Adirondacks – hosted a fundraising dinner at the Saranac Lake Fish and Game Club, and the Adirondack State Theater in Tupper Lake screened a film about PTS called “Happy New Year.” Today at 4:40 p.m. the theater will screen “High Ground,” a documentary about PTS.

(Editor’s note: This article has been corrected to reflect that Dan Nolin is not a veteran.)