Two soldiers who called Richmond Hill home and died in battle this year were among those recognized in an emotional Veterans Day ceremony at J.F. Gregory Park Wednesday.
The young widows and other relatives of USMC Capt. Matthew Freeman, who died Aug. 7, and Army Ranger Staff Sgt. Jason Dahlke, who died Aug. 28, attended the holiday observance along with around 100 Richmond Hill residents.
The event included speakers from local military civic groups and presentations to the Freeman and Dahlke family.
Freeman was posthumously presented with a plaque from the Veterans of Foreign Wars while Mayor Richard Davis posthumously presented Dahkle with a plaque from the city
"This whole town has been the epitome of what all small towns should be," Lisa Freeman said regarding the local deeds she has observed in honor of her late son. "The outpouring of love and attention to recognizing not only what he did in the military but also what he did here in high school has been incredible. It’s actually buoyed all of our spirits and keeps him alive a little bit more."
Freeman’s widow, Capt. Theresa Hess-Freeman flew in from her post to Okinawa, Japan with the 31st Rescue Squadron to attend the event.
"I’m certainly very proud of the support that Richmond Hill has demonstrated," Hess-Freeman said. "I think Matt would be extremely proud of his hometown."
Matt and Theresa both grew up in Richmond Hill. They’ve known each other since the age of 12 and graduated from Richmond Hill High School together in 1998."We both shared a strong sense of patriotic call to service," Hess-Freeman said. "Serving the military was something that we felt strongly about and it marked our relationship. I still feel very proud to serve and I
believe in all the things that he died for. There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think about him and remember his sacrifice."
Roger Dahlke, who drove up from Jacksonville, said the ceremony and the support shown for his late son was a great honor to his family. Staff Sergeant Jason Dahlke and his wife Niki purchased a home in Richmond Hill in 2005.
"He used this park two to three times a week to run with his dogs," Roger Dahlke said. "He enjoyed Richmond Hill because he was closer to nature here than when he stayed in Savannah. He was always out in Fort McAllister and the swamps, and kayaking and enjoying the outdoors."
Dahlke said his whole family is still having a hard time coming to terms with the loss of his son, noting this is the second son he has lost. Jason’s older brother was killed by a drunk driver while riding his bicycle in 1987.
When asked if he is proud of the sacrifice his son made for his country, Roger Dahlke responded "not yet. Probably still more hurt and even a little bit of anger."
Dahlke said President Barack Obama contacted his family and is personally assisting in getting a building or a street named after his son near the family home in Jacksonville. Coincidentally, a street is slated to be named in Richmond Hill for Matthew Freeman next week.
"This was a very nice ceremony and a nice way to recognize those who have served," Niki Dahlke said. "He loved this park, so this is fitting for him to be recognized here."
In addition to the plaques, Freeman and Dahlke were each commemorated by having bricks bearing their names added to the Gregory Park Veterans Memorial, courtesy of the Richmond Hill Exchange Club.
In what has become an annual event, the Club purchased a total of 12 bricks, which include the names of area soldiers such as Hess-Freeman and the men who died in battle with Freeman and Dahlke.
In his address, Mayor Richard Davis said "veterans are people who know the true meaning of courage," and named each service member that died in Fort Hood last week as well as Richmond Hill soldiers that died in the line of duty, such as Freeman, Dahlke, Army First Sgt. Alan Gifford and Army Major Sid Brookshire.
Jonathan DeJesus with the local chapter of the Veterans of Foreign Wars said Richmond Hill residents are especially privileged because they encounter a large number of veterans and active military in their everyday life.
He encouraged residents to "celebrate them, welcome them and make a friend. Let them know you appreciate what they do."
"Americans can show thanks (to military veterans and personnel) by living their lives in a positive manner, voting, mentoring a child and just being good Americans," said Col. Shawn Morrissey, 3rd Sustainment Brigade Commander. "That will show us that all that is being done by the military is not in vain."