Two San Mateo County veterans and a nonprofit that helps senior veterans will be honored today by the San Mateo County Veterans Commission for their commitment to improving the quality of life for other veterans.

Former Mayor Sue Digre is honored as Patriot of the Year, Paul Harrell as Veteran of the Year, and Peninsula Volunteers Inc. as Enterprise of the Year during a virtual ceremony at 10 a.m.

Digre grew up a military dependent and is a military mom of three who served. Now she advocates for veterans in the community. 

She needed support when her children went overseas with the military and she helped found Pacifica Military Moms. She got busy helping to organize care packages to be sent to troops overseas. In fact, Blue Star Moms of San Mateo County formed from the Pacifica Military Moms. She also served Pacifica as a city council member for 16 years. Digre works as director of family services for PARCA.

In an email to the Tribune, she said her reaction to the honor was befuddlement and that it made her feel a bit awkward. She said that confusion turned to honor when she found out she was nominated by a military wife.

What drives her to the constant advocacy? Her parents and extended family members who served.

“My parents were patriots. It was and is not easy to be a military family. Both my parents valued personal freedom. Freedom isn’t free,” she wrote. “My dad would say, ‘No one understands the need for peace more than someone who has experienced war. Do your best to work things out.’”

She was inspired by loved ones who stepped forward to offer themselves in U.S. military service to protect freedom for all, no matter how grave the personal cost.

“How we live each day shows we appreciate those acts of generosity and bravery for us,” she wrote. “I lost uncles in World War II, and a U.S. Cav. Medic in the Vietnam War. Our families were deeply affected. Our sons were sent to Iraq and Afghanistan. I experienced fear of potential doom daily.”

She wrote that her most consistent service may be continuing to spotlight veterans.

“Daily we have their backs. How we cherish and use our freedoms honors them daily. Being a good, well-informed, engaged citizen honors all veterans and their families,” she wrote.

The local Veterans of Foreign Wars and friends of the Pacifica Terra Nova students who died in Vietnam are remembering those local kids on Thursday, Veterans Day, with the unveiling of a memorial monument.

Digre wrote she contacted the Pacifica Tribune when her boys were sent to the war zone. She wanted to find other Pacifica military moms needing moral support. Debbie Symser and Fayline Kaplin responded immediately and that is how Pacifica Military Moms started.

“Our families and friends and the Pacifica community were awesome in this serving venture,” she wrote. “After a while we chose to become San Mateo County Blue Star Moms as many San Mateo County families wanted to connect. Some of our members lost children in these wars and are Gold Star Moms. That is too sobering.”

Veteran of the Year Harell grew up the son of an Air Force veteran. He entered the Air Force during Vietnam and was stationed at Travis Air Force Base, like his father. After military service, he started an in-home care facility for the elderly.

The Enterprise of the Year honor goes to Peninsula Volunteers Inc., entering 75 years serving vulnerable seniors. PVI’s mission is to allow seniors to age in place. Many participants are veterans.

Thursday’s ceremony will include a keynote speech by Lt. General Micheal A. Rocco, current president and CEO of the Marine Memorial Association.

San Mateo County Board of Supervisors established the Veterans Commission in June 2015 to address the needs of veterans in the county.

Jane Northrop has covered Pacifica for the Pacifica Tribune since 1996. She has won first place John Swett Awards from the California Teachers Association for her coverage of education.

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