Editor's note: This very moving event took place the day before Hurricane Sandy struck. Its publication was unfortunately delayed in the storm's aftermath. Berkeley Patch regrets the delay.
The skies were an ominous pewter and the winds were already blowing hard from the east as the Central Regional High School Fallen Heroes War Memorial dedication ceremony got underway on Oct. 27.
Most of the several hundred who attended the poignant event could not imagine how Superstorm Sandy would devastate Bayville and the Jersey Shore in little more than 24 hours.
But the day before the storm that changed everything, they came to honor four Central Regional graduates - three long dead, killed in Vietnam, and one lost much later in Afghanistan. Their names were George Berg, William Hester, Robert P. Church, and John A. Lyons.
"These men died for our country," said Kelly Butler, Class of 1976 and the founder of the Central Regional Alumni Association.
"One of our dreams was to create a memorial for our fallen soldiers," she said.
But they weren't only soldiers. They were once boys, Butler said.
"These men went to the same school," she said. "They walked the same halls, just like us. These men are Central Regional."
George Philip Berg, Class of 1965, ran cross-country and sang in the Madrigal Singers choir. The U.S. Army Chief Warrant Officer was killed in a helicopter crash on a rescue mission in Laos on Feb. 18, 1971. His remains were never recovered.
U.S. Marine Private First Class William Walter Hester, Class of 1967. He was only 19 when he was killed on July 1, 1968, while defending his battalion under assault. Billy Hester was a mainstay on the Central Regional varsity basketball team and served as co-captain.
U.S. Marine Private First Class Robert Edward Church, Class of 1967. He was 21 when he was killed on May 16, 1968, while defending his platoon. Bob Church was a member of the sportsman's club and mechanical drawing club.
Army Sgt. John A. Lyons, 26, class of 2003, died in late October last year of wounds he suffered when insurgents attacked his unit using small arms fire, in Ghazni province, Afghanistan. He was engaged to be married, had two college degrees and loved to fish off the bayside docks in his home town of Seaside Park.
Sadly, since the ceremony, another plaque is slated to be added to the memorial. Christopher Monahan, 25, husband and father of three, was killed on Nov. 26 while conducting combat operations in Helman province, Afghanistan.
Nancy Seibert - president of the Central Regional Alumni Association - was the "backbone" behind getting the memorial started, after Lyons was killed in Afghanistan, Butler said.
"In 2011, we lost another," Butler said, choking up.
Seibert and Mayor Carmen F. Amato Jr. thanked the many volunteers who donated time and materials to build the memorial by the flagpole at the front of the school.
"Unfortunately, they (veterans) are not here to see the work," she said. "We will never forget our fallen."
Amato noted that Berkeley Township has the largest number of veterans in Ocean County, including Township Council President James J. Byrnes, who was an Army medic in Vietnam and received the Purple Heart and Bronze Star.
"Jimmy, thank you," Amato said.
Friends and families remember
Donald Gray, who represented Robert Church's family, said it was not just a day to honor those lost.
"We should be honoring the families," he said. "These are the people that live with the tragic loss throughout their lives. It's to honor those that didn't make it home."
Rev. Larry Maddox, class of 1970, remembered Hester, even though he was a few years younger.
"Billy was an example of what a young man should be," Maddox said. "He was the ultimate gentleman in and out of school. Billy enlisted in a war that was unpopular. He led by example. You have to find your heart. He was a soldier. We do miss him and we think about him after all these years."
Seibert spoke for the Berg family. Berg's 92-year-old father Norman, who wrote "We Regret To Inform You," a book about the lives and deaths of some who served in Vietnam, including his son.
George's brother had tried to talk the young man - who was attending Penn State - out of volunteering, Seibert said.
"He feels guilty to this day for not trying to persuade George to stay in college," she said.
Young veterans returning home from Vietnam were not honored the way veterans are today, she said.
"Unfortunately they were hassled and called many names. This was a very common occurrence for veterans in those days," Seibert said.
"George was a handsome young man with a grin that would break your heart," she added. "He was an outstanding athlete. He had the tenor voice of Pat Boone."
John Lyons' aunt spoke for his family.
"When I learned of John's death, my life changed forever," she said. "John Aldrich Lyons was a scholar, a writer, a lover of politics. John was a lover of life. He loved people and people loved John."
Lyons was killed only five weeks before he was due to come home and five weeks before his 27th birthday," his aunt said.
After "Taps" was played, white doves were released. A small rainbow briefly appeared on the horizon. The doves circled high above the memorial for several minutes after they were set free.