BETHEL — “The [Vietnam Veterans] when they arrived home, they were told to change into civilian clothes before getting off the plane… people were spitting in the face of these soldiers calling them killers. So many names on the Vietnam panel are names I know,” Jane Ryerson said, pausing to collect herself. “Welcome home” she told them.
“I take every name seriously,” Ryerson said. She recounted a recent exchange with a woman whose uncle was on the memorial, “but why not his grandfather, also a veteran?” asked the woman. After much research, Ryerson told the woman that her father would not be included as he was not a resident until years later. Acquiring names has been the biggest expense of time for Ryerson and other volunteers. They visited Maine archives, cemeteries; scanned Civil War books and old journals kept by Ryerson’s grandmother.
When attendees arrived on Monday, they saw American flags decorating telephone poles along Main and Broad streets. They heard the Mahoosuc Community band playing patriotic songs from platters attached to a farm truck. While on duty, the band played “A Medley of Military Hymns” songs distinguishing each branch of the military. Men from each branch stood as their music was played. Some greeted.
Dressed in a traditional Revolutionary War uniform, Commander Harry Orcutt, Jackson Silver Post 68, spoke about western Maine’s involvement in that war more than 200 centuries ago. He cited the importance of history, saying a Maine resident whose family spans generations in western Maine likely has a Revolutionary War ancestor. “The ties to the past run deep here. We better honor their history, our history, building on the foundations they created.
Guest speaker, the Honorable Jarrod Crockett, Oxford County Probate Judge and retired U.S. Army Major, spoke about Maine’s contribution to many wars, including its outsized role in the civil war. “…a bayonet charge on a little rocky hill called Little Round Top which marked a decisive point in a battle which changed the tide of the war which ended the bad business of slavery.”
Crockett and his family travel to East Bethel every year to visit the grave of Sergeant Isaac W. Estes, of the famed 20th Maine Regiment. Estes was wounded on July 4 at the Battle of Gettysburg and succumbed to his wounds twelve days later. Crockett said “By mentioning his name today, I fulfill a personal vow to Sergeant Estes as well as my conscience to keep the story of his family’s sacrifice alive a little longer.”
Bringing the message closer to his home and noting the empty space at the back of the monument, he said: ‘There are places for hundreds more names to be engraved. To maintain the peace and freedom to which we have grown accustomed, these spaces will be filled with the names of the sons and daughters of Bethel in generations to come.
Ryerson along with her husband Craig, John Head, Richard Grover, and a small army of volunteers, spent several years designing, meticulously researching, and ultimately completing after 11 years, the Veterans Honor Roll Park in Bethel. They raised funds, from volunteers and taxpayers, and solicited volunteer work for other people’s monuments. Ryerson acknowledged and thanked all of the volunteers during a double Memorial Day service and dedication of the Veterans’ Honor Roll Park, which took place on Memorial Day at 10 a.m.
Following a vision “drawn on a napkin” 11 years ago, and a subsequent mission statement developed by their volunteers, they got to work. Ryerson estimated that 40,000 volunteer hours were spent. They waited two years for the current site to be acquired by the city, starting again after the first project and location were abandoned. Fundraising was their biggest hurdle, Ryerson said, but the generosity of local contractors helped drastically reduce their initial estimate of $250,000.
The monument honors 1,350 veterans of Bethel, Grafton Twp., Albany Twp., Mason Twp and Riley Plantation. Men and women from this corner of Maine who bravely contributed to all of America’s wars, beginning with the American Revolution and ending with the Global War on Terror, are commemorated on the wall.
At the end of Ryerson’s speech, she said the project was a “labor of love” by everyone who worked on the committee. “All veterans who served then and serve today deserve our respect, our gratitude, our admiration and our thanks…they deserve our appreciation. Something a veteran would never ask for. That’s what this honor roll does.