By CHELSEY POLLOCK
Union Leader Correspondent
DERRY -- Last year, Command Sgt. Major Peter K. Chase of Derry missed West Running Brook Middle School’s annual veterans breakfast, but for good reason — he was deployed to Iraq.
Chase said the West Running Brook community embraced his family, including his two daughters in middle school, during his deployment with the 101st Engineer Battalion out of Methuen, Mass.
So when Chase was asked to be the guest speaker at this year’s veterans event, he said it held special meaning for him.
“The support they gave to us was just wonderful,” he said. “And on days like this, it can be emotional to see the outpouring of support. It’s great to see that kind of patriotism in young kids.”
During the fourth annual veterans breakfast on Wednesday, Chase addressed a crowd of several hundred, including the more than 100 veterans and active service members in attendance.
“The one thing about being an American veteran that is unlike any other organization is that a 19-year-old Iraq veteran can sit down next to an 85- year-old World War II veteran and strike up a conversation like they’ve known each other for life,” Chase said in his address. “It’s because they’ve felt the same things, the same emotions, and that brotherhood is strong.”
And his words rang true throughout the morning, as veterans across generations and their families shared food and camaraderie in the school’s gymnasium.
Wednesday marked the first breakfast for Gary Kenefick, formerly of Derry, who drove up from Cape Cod, Mass., to spend the morning with his nephew, 11-year-old Ryan Breen of Derry.
“He asked me and I thought it was very touching, so I said I would come,” said Kenefick, who served in the U.S. Marine Corps during the Vietnam War. “To me, it’s very meaningful that kids like my nephew take the time to acknowledge the commitment people have made and respect what we have done.”
Thirteen-year-old Thomas Gillespie has invited his grandfather Jerry Gillespie of Londonderry to the event for the past three years.
“I know he likes coming, and this shows everyone how many people have served,” said the younger Gillespie Wednesday. “Most districts don’t have stuff like this and some people just don’t really understand.”
But for the elder Gillespie, the breakfast is also just a time to spend with his grandson.
“I don’t know a lot of people here because I’m not from Derry,” he said. “But I get to sit here with my grandson, and I always enjoy it.”
After the breakfast concluded, students and staff presented a series of tributes to veterans, including several readings and songs.
Vietnam War veterans were singled out several times throughout the morning, as speakers acknowledged what they called a lack of support for service members returning home from war in the 1960s and '70s.
Andy Hamelin, a Vietnam-era Marine and West Running Brook custodian, said he, too, found the specific recognition meaningful.
“It kind of just says to us that we’re not second-class citizens, which is what some of us felt coming back,” said Hamelin, of Derry.
“I like to see this instead of us spitting on our own soldiers,” said Raymond Mailhot of Manchester, who served in the U.S. Army during Vietnam. “They look up to them now. It’s not like Vietnam.”
And West Running Brook Principal Leslie Saucier said she hopes events like the annual veterans breakfast will help to carry that sentiment beyond just Veterans Day each year.
“We hope that the next time you see a veteran, you stop and thank them for the freedom we have as Americans,” Saucier told students at the conclusion of Wednesday’s event. “And you’ll recognize them not only by the cap on their heads, but by the patriotism in their eyes.”