CHESTERFIELD, N.H. -- Howard Walker Kaiser and William "Billy" Wayne O'Neil had a lot in common.
They each graduated from Chesterfield School and Keene High School. They shared similar interests. They even lived on the same stretch of road. And both volunteered their service to the United States military before making the ultimate sacrifice in the name of freedom.
Dozens of community members joined The Chesterfield Arch Bridge Beautification and Preservation Society and American Legion Post 86 on Veterans Day to remember the two fallen men and the countless others who have put their lives on the line for their nation. A memorial service was held on the Justice Harlan Fiske Stone Bridge -- which stands adjacent to the U.S. Navy Seabees Bridge still in use -- for prayer, reflection and gratitude for all past and current members of the armed forces.
After a brief welcome and introduction by preservation society Chairwoman Cynthia Keyes, Post 86 Chaplain Dot Hunt took the podium to address those who came out to show their support for military veterans.
"Saying 'Thank You' is not always enough to truly honor America's newest generation of warriors and veterans. Their unique needs require that we support and recognize these needs and take action to make a difference for these brave men and women," she said under a nearly cloudless sky. "It is an honor to once again be asked to speak as chaplain of our American Legion Post 86, but more important, it is with great honor and respect to have each and everyone of you joining us as I welcome you all to our sacred place once again to pay tribute to the men and women who stood at the barricades so that we may enjoy the blessings of liberty."
SLIDESHOW: Brattleboro Area Veterans Day Observance, here.
According to the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, Veterans Day started as Armistice Day in 1919 as a way to celebrate the end of World War I and honor those who served in it. But in 1954 Congress amended it to Veterans Day in order to acknowledge all men and women that served in any American military mission.
Hunt introduced Marine Sgt. Maj. (Ret.) Martin Mahoney, a longtime Chesterfield resident, decorated combat veteran of the Vietnam War and Operation Desert Storm and retired principal of the Chesterfield School. Mahoney commemorated soldiers whose fate is still unknown by designating a chair as part of a POW/MIA Empty Chair Ceremony before speaking about Kaiser and O'Neil.
"Although I did not know them personally, having served in Vietnam for most of 1968 and 1969, I knew many young men like them. Men who endured the horrors and hardships of war, who regrettably on too many occasions received little respect and often ridicule and disdain from their own countrymen for their service and sacrifice, who, as many combat veterans will attest, didn't fight for personal glory or to promote questionable national interests," he said in full uniform. "Rather, they fought for each other on their own little God-forsaken patch of ground on a day-to-day basis with death tugging at their bootstraps with the only family in the only world they knew."
Mahoney said Kaiser graduated from Keene High School in 1959 and earned a bachelor's degree from the University of New Hampshire, where he played lacrosse and was commissioned a second lieutenant in the U.S. Air Force. Kaiser was deployed to Vietnam in 1966 and flew a reconnaissance plane to provide support for troops in need of artillery or other amenities. Mahoney said 178 of such aircraft were lost during the Vietnam War.
Kaiser started flying actual missions and logged more than 600 (as many as five in one day) before being killed in action on Sept. 13, 1966, at the age of 25. He was awarded a Silver Star, the Vietnam Medal of Valor, the Purple Heart, the Air Medal with 18 oak leaf clusters and was inducted into the UNH ROTC Hall of Fame for his heroism.
According to Mahoney, O'Neil graduated from KHS in 1967 and enlisted in the Army. He was killed in action at 20 when the Viet Cong, America's enemy during the Vietnam War, rocketed his base company. Mahoney said he never met O'Neil -- who received the Bronze Star, an Army Commendation Medal with Combat "V" for valor and a Purple Heart -- but eventually got to know his family through involvement in the community.
"His dad, Jim Sr., was chair of the school board when I was first hired here in 1972. I served on a number of committees with his brother, Jim Jr., and his sister Judy and I volunteer at the Community Kitchen in Keene," Mahoney recalled. "I always make it a point while hiking the trails through Friedsam Forest to stop and pay my respects to both Jim Sr. and Billy, who appropriately rest side by side for eternity on that small hillside cemetery in Chesterfield."
He also wished a happy belated birthday to his brethren of the Marine Corps., as the branch's 238th anniversary occurred the day before.
Hunt then took a moment to recognize 10 hometown heroes who are serving in the military: Nathan Hadlock, Logan Hormor, Peter Mitchell, Deven Prince and Stephen Tides (Army), Thomas Pufki and Christopher Stauder (Army National Guard), David Miln and Thomas Crosby (Coast Guard) and Lazlo Bogar (The U.S. Military Academy at West Point).
"Our veterans are drawn from many generations and from many backgrounds. Some charged across great battlefields. Some fought on the high seas, while others patrolled the open skies. Some trudged through the thickest of all enemy-filled jungles, through swamps and trenches of wounded and deceased bodies, while others held their comrades as they watched them pass before them," she said. "This day is dedicated to all who answered the call to service -- whether they live amongst us or sleep in valor beneath their sacred grounds. From Valley Forge to Vietnam, from Kuwait to Kandahar, from Berlin to Baghdad, our veterans have borne the costs of America's wars -- and they have stood watch over America's peace."
Domenic Poli can be reached at email@example.com, or 802-254-2311, ext. 277. You can follow him on Twitter @dpoli_reformer.