By DEE MOORE
For the Keizertimes
The sun slid behind the gathering clouds as the small, solemn crowd congregated on Memorial Day to honor Pfc. Ryan Hill and dedicate the new flag poles recently added to the park named after the Keizer Army war hero who fell in 2007.
The grey sky – which only moments before had bathed the spectators in brilliant sunlight – lent the event an air of mourning. Though the crowd had gathered to honor Hill, they also came to honor their loved ones.
The ceremony was simple. Rev. Matthew Price stepped in front of the crowd and thanked them for coming out for Pfc. Hill and the dedication.
This was followed by the McNary Air Force Junior ROTC Color Guard. They marched onto the small square leading into the park, carrying the U.S. and Oregon flags. Price and well-known Keizer vet Jesus “Monty” Montes recited the Pledge of Allegiance.
Price stepped in front of the crowd again and told the story of how the flag poles came to be in the park.
A veteran, chaplain and American Legion member, it was Price’s idea to add flags to the park. The idea came to Price last year when the park was named for Hill and dedicated. According to Price, he turned to Keizer mayor Lore Christopher and said, “Lore, something is missing.”
That missing piece was a flag pole and a flag. One pole became two and one flag soon became four. And Price had a quest.
“The civic minded honorable people you have put into office said we will do this,” Price told the gathering.
He steamrolled the idea of putting flag poles in the park through the community and Keizer City Council. He had little difficulty getting it done; everyone he approached thought it was a great idea.
“I kicked the ball, got it rolling and brought it all the way here,” Price said.
The next step was funding. Flag poles, according to the chaplain, are costly.
In stepped American Legion Riders Chapter 21 out of McMinnville, a group that was instrumental to that process. These motorcycle riding vets made donations and helped raise awareness about the project. Funds trickled in from chapters around the state.
According to Gale Sears, director of the McMinnville chapter, more than 80 percent of American Legion Riders in the state contributed in one way of another.
“We stand here today because Ryan Hill stood in the gap. Today we will stand in his honor and thank him for his service,” Price said.
The flags were then raised. A prayer was said. The crowd dispersed. For those attending the event, there was no need for long speeches and grandiose gestures; it was rather a time of shared grief, comfort and hope.
“I hope because of all the traffic that returning vets will see the flags and they will know there are people who care,” Price said.
The park is nestled among the shops and restaurants in Keizer Station. A quiet, green space, the area is a constant hubbub of activity, for which Price is grateful.
The flag raising and dedication ceremony was also an opportunity for many veterans to reach out to others and offer the benefit of their experience.
Price and Sears feel it is important area vets know there is someone waiting at home who understands what they’ve been through, someone who can relate and who can listen without comment or judgment.
Many of the veterans attending the ceremony served in Vietnam. This is part of their healing process. They give the acceptance and understanding they were denied when they served.
Rider Jim Connelly of McMinnville feels the flag poles and efforts made by Price and others is more than symbolic.
“It means we are supporting our vets,” Connelly said while standing next to his large cruiser motorcycle.
“I feel …,” he pauses, straining to control the emotions conjured up by memories of returning home from Vietnam. He changes the subject.
“It’s validation and collective support. Vietnam was a learning experience,” he said.
What the country learned was no matter how people feel about politics, politicians or the conflicts American soldiers are sent to fight in, it’s important for the troops to know they will have our support, he said.
“We’ve brought our children up to respect vets,” Connelly said.