SALEM — Ralph DeLong has seen a lot in his 79 years.
The U.S. Air Force veteran has been deployed to Japan and served in the Korean War.
But when the Lawrence man and approximately 70 other military veterans were honored for their sacrifice during a special breakfast at Woodbury School yesterday, what he saw was almost a little too much to handle.
It had been more than 60 years since the Air Force veteran left Korea. To be recognized decades later was something special, DeLong said, proudly wearing his 187th Airborne cap.
“It was unbelievable,” he said.
DeLong’s granddaughter, 11-year-old Brianna Brown, happened to be among the several hundred schoolchildren who sang, read essays and thanked the veterans for their service. They were joined by Gov. John Lynch and U.S. Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H.
But when DeLong suddenly saw a photo of himself as a 17-year-old recruit during a video montage of local veterans, it was almost too much for him to bear.
“It was something else,” he said. “I got too emotional.”
DeLong was seated near another veteran, who also saw a photo of himself from what seemed like a lifetime ago.
“I said, ‘Do you remember being that young?’” DeLong said.
Air Force veteran Enrico Casaletto, 78, of Salem was also moved by the ceremony.
“I think it was fabulous,” he said. “It really made us feel important.”
The school gymnasium was packed as the students honored their special guests, who enjoyed a breakfast of fruit, muffins and doughnuts as they sat at tables with red, white and blue tablecloths.
A small American flag stood in the middle of each table.
The Salem High School ROTC provided a presentation of colors, followed by the middle school chorus singing the national anthem and the students leading the crowd in the “Pledge of Allegiance.”
Lynch and Ayotte praised the veterans.
“Thank you for your service, thank you for your sacrifice, thank you for dedication,” Lynch said. “You fought for our nation with honor and dignity.”
Ayotte, who serves on the Senate Armed Services Committee, called the veterans “quiet heroes.”
“To every veteran here, thank you for what you have done, “ she said. “We have the best military in the world. We have people who go out and give everything for us.”
Maj. Gen. William Reddel, the state’s adjutant general, asked the crowd to remember the troops currently stationed in Afghanistan and those who will be deployed there soon.
“With everything that’s been going on, the war has become background music,” Reddel said.
The keynote speaker was Jan Radowicz, associate principal and dean of freshman students at Salem High.
Radowicz, whose father was in the military, told how she lived in several states and attended five schools by the time she was in sixth grade. The last thing Radowicz said she wanted to do was join the military when she grew up, opting for genetics research. But she changed her mind, becoming a director of operations and air weapons director in the Air Force.
“I loved my job,” she said. “I got the opportunity to meet a lot of different people in a lot of different cultures.”
When her daughter was young, Radowicz left the military and became a teacher. She thanked the other veterans for their service.
“To all the veterans who are with us today, welcome home,” she said.
Four sixth-graders read personal essays, thanking the veterans.
“You have helped the United States of America each day,” said Michelle Korbani, 11. “All of you are blessings to America.”
The breakfast has been a Salem tradition for nearly 15 years. The video montage featured photos of veterans both young and old. They included the seven Salem High graduates who have been killed in recent years while serving their country. The latest was Army Capt. Shawn Hogan, a 2002 graduate killed in a training accident Oct. 17. There was a moment of silence in his memory.