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Staff Writer

RINGE, N.H. — A small group of older men, some hobbling on age-stiffened knees, some in wheelchairs, some able to walk militarily erect, and some with long hair from another era, walked into the Cathedral of the Pines May 12 to pay their Memorial Day respects to veterans.

They were World War II, Korea and Vietnam warriors who had served in the 101st Airborne Division — the “Screaming Eagles” — and other infantry units. All owned one of the most respected decorations in the Army — the Combat Infantry Badge.

This year, as before, they met at the Altar of the Nation –built of stones from every state and territory, battlefields including Iraq, and from every president since Harry Truman — to re-dedicate three special iron plaques.

One commemorates the New England chapter of the 101st Airborne, another was donated in 2002 by the New England regiment of the Combat Infantrymen’s Association, and one installed in 2004 by retired Command Sgt. Maj. Robert Delia, of Pepperell, dedicated to Army wives.

Warmed by a wood fire in the cathedral chapel, which was built to honor an Army Air Corps son lost in battle, the group was welcomed by airborne association secretary David McAllister of Chelmsford, who had served with Delia in Vietnam. They bowed their heads for a prayer by chaplain Col. Richard Schweinsburg of the 94th Regional Readiness Command at Devens.

Robert Morrissey, 101st Airborne Association New England chapter president, said of veterans, “To them now, we owe everything, what we have and what you did. I can’t thank you enough. We can go to the store when we want and go anywhere when we want. You can’t do that in much of the world.”

Morrissey carried four long-stem red roses that he later laid across the 101st Airborne plaque. One flower was for his badly-wounded son who made it home from Iraq; the others for his son’s deceased comrades, two of whom were killed in action on May 12 two years ago.

“None ran. All enlisted. They said ‘I’ll fight. I’ll keep them from coming here,'” Morrissey said. “The least I can do is honor their memory.”

Retired Lt. Col. Frank Belitsky of Groton, an artillery officer who served with the 101st, participated in the wreath-laying wearing an infantry-blue baseball cap of the 101st Association.

“We in the infantry like the artillery. And we like the Air Force, too, because they both have bigger bullets then we do,” joked Delia, a former “recon” infantryman.

Turning their attention to military wives, Delia said of his late wife, Joan, “After Korea I met a young lady and married her after only 20 days. It lasted 51 years.

“There’s a thing about service wives,” he said. “I told her I only knew about soldiering. She was very proud to be a soldier’s wife; headstrong too, but she always stayed in the background. She always said ‘you, not me.’

“She saved the Army a lot of money as a Red Cross dental assistant” Delia said. “The money wasn’t good but she liked helping soldiers and took care of people while I was fighting.

“The thing is, we who wear the uniform think we have duties. We and the military don’t look at families too much. It’s important to remember wives who did it all by themselves and for other people,” Delia said. “It is the toughest job in the Army. Soldiering is a cakewalk by comparison.”

Delia said even though he spoke of his own wife, the plaque is for all military wives.

Retired Staff Sgt. John Hipson, New England regimental commander of the Combat Infantrymen’s Association, read a touching tribute to veterans printed more than 20 years ago.

A World War II veteran in the rear interrupted the proceeding several times, asking his family what was said because he couldn’t hear. No one complained. Some participants turned to smile and wave to him.

Guest speaker retired Lt. Col. Gregory d’Arbonne, a New Hampshire native, told a story about encountering people from Michigan in Manchester Airport who joked that the state motto “Live Free or Die” sounded like “some kind of New England red-neck thing.”

He said he informed them the motto is attributed to Gen. John Stark, who led the New Hampshire Regiment, the largest unit at the Battle of Bunker Hill.

“He said he would rather die than live under a king’s rule,” d’Arbonne said, relating how the people from Michigan then stopped laughing.

With his spouse Arlene, in the audience, d’Arbonne said of Army wives, “We get deployed. We know when we’re in danger, pretty much. They can only imagine. I would not have made lieutenant colonel or be the man I am today without my wife. Thank you for letting us do our job.”

He said veterans comprise just 10 percent of America’s population and will eventually shrink to 5 percent.

“We are the smallest minority of all minorities. We should be proud and should remind others of the sacrifices of those who went before us,” he said.

Cathedral Chairman Jed Brummer said the Altar of the Nation is observing its 50th anniversary and the Women’s Memorial Bell Tower its 40th. A petition is underway to institute a postage stamp showing Mt. Monadnock, the most-climbed mountain in the world. A conference center is also being planned.

“We will never forget veterans, those before, on duty, or at home,” Brummer said. “We will make sure this country never forgets.”