By Doug Ireland
---- — SALEM — Leigh Smith served with the U.S. Army during the Korean War. Ethan Major just returned from Afghanistan, where he was stationed with the National Guard.
The 79-year-old Salem man and Major, his 23-year-old grandson, were among nearly 100 veterans honored for their sacrifice yesterday during the 15th annual veterans breakfast at Woodbury School.
It was a heartfelt time of reflection for the veterans; students and members of the community packed the school gymnasium to thank them for their service.
“This is absolutely great,” said Ralph Vir, a 91-year-old World War II veteran who served in the South Pacific.
The veterans were greeted at the school entrance by an 11-member honor guard and members of the Student Council holding small flags. They were led into the school gymnasium, where they sat down at tables with red, white and blue tablecloths to enjoy a meal of muffins, fruit and juice.
Those who came to honor them included N.H. Gov. Maggie Hassan, U.S. Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., and Maj. Gen. William Reddel, the state’s adjutant general. The keynote speaker was Thomas Kelley, a Salem firefighter and U.S. Marine Corps veteran who serves in the National Guard.
“I want to thank you for your selfless service and brave sacrifice,” Hassan said.
The governor told of how her father — a military police officer with the Army — fought in the Battle of the Bulge during World War II.
“He was proud of his service,” she said. “In all of you here today, I see the same strength, resolve and devotion I saw in my dad.
Hassan and Ayotte told the middle school students, some of whom read essays and performed a musical tribute, to follow the examples the veterans set.
“Make sure you go up and talk to them,” Ayotte said. “Ask what they are doing, learn from them.”
She had a message for the veterans as well.
“You represent the very best of New Hampshire,” Ayotte said. “We are tremendously proud of you.”
Kelley said he felt honored to receive a “gift” when he enlisted and that his military service changed his life.
“I took that gift and ran with it — that was to protect,” he said. “I did things I never thought I would do, never thought I would see.”
Kelley said he wanted to thank the veterans and others who greeted him after returning from trips overseas.
“That meant the world to me,” he said. “Thanks for being at the docks when I came home; thanks for being at the airport.”
The crowd of several hundred people was asked to pray for the soldiers still stationed in Afghanistan and the prisoners of war and those missing in action who never returned home. There are 150 New Hampshire soldiers in Afghanistan, Reddel said.
“I’m not going to take this uniform off until all my units are home,” he said. “This is a reminder to the state of New Hampshire that (the war) is not over and it won’t be over until they are home.”
Major, a sergeant from Sandown, is home from Afghanistan but just re-enlisted for six more years.
He said it was an honor to be recognized, but what made the event special for him was seeing his grandfather and older veterans thanked for their service decades ago.
“It’s really great to see them getting the recognition they deserve,” he said.
It was also a special day for the students, including sixth-grader Hunter DuMouchel,11.
“I think they deserve it,” Hunter said of the veterans. “We wanted to make this the best day for them.”