Samantha Daehling holds the signed memorial flag her class gave to her for Memorial Day. See more photos here.
DALTON, Mass. — Mitch Daehling didn't live in Dalton for very long but he left a deep impression during his brief time at Wahconah Regional High School.
That connection with the town was given permanence on Saturday when the Old Windsor Road bridge over the Housatonic River was named the Spc. Mitchell K. Daehling Memorial Bridge.
The 2006 Wahconah graduate was "a model citizen and soldier, loving husband, loyal son, brother, grandson and friend," said retired Principal Tom Callahan, who was master of ceremonies for the dedication. "Mitch's patriotism brought him to answer his country's call to military duty."
A gathering of family, community members, representatives of elected officials, veterans and classmates attended the unveiling of a bronze plaque recalling the sacrifice of the 24-year-old Army infantryman and installed within sight of the high school he attended.
Daehling and three other solders were killed by an improvised explosive device on May 14, 2013, in Senjaray, Afghanistan. He was posthumously awarded the Bronze Star, Purple Heart, Army Good Conduct Medal, Combat Infantryman's Badge and the NATO Medal.
Hundreds lined the streets from Lee to Pittsfield to Dalton when Daehling's body was escorted to St. Agnes' Church for his funeral. The Wyoming native was later buried next to his grandfather, decorated Korean War veteran Kenneth J. Sander, in Lewiston, Idaho.
He left behind his parents, Kirk and Brenda Daehling, his siblings Adam and Kayla, and his wife of barely a year, Samantha McNamara Daehling.
Samantha Daehling, a third-grade teacher in eastern Massachusetts, said she inevitably gets asked each year by her pupils if she's married. She tells that she was married to a soldier and as the year goes on, she shares stories about Mitch and how he liked the outdoors and sports and video games.
"And as the school year goes on, more students tend to ask me, 'Mrs. D, what happened?' And I tell them in the most appropriate ways that I can, because it's hard for a third-grader to understand."
A couple weeks ago, two of her pupils made an American flag drawing and had every child sign it in memory of Mitch, she said, and on the Friday before Memorial Day, they quieted their classmates and gave a speech.
"They reminded my class what Memorial Day is about," Daehling said. "And after their beautiful speech of telling me about Memorial Day, these two wonderful students turned to me and handed me this poster. And they said, 'Mrs. D, we remember.'"
Holding back tears, Daehling held up the flag picture with all the signatures. She could tell her students about her husband and his sacrifice but she can't tell everyone, she said.
"And it's because of people like you and because of this bridge, you've provided us with an opportunity to share his story. Because the only way his story continues, is through people that loved him and knew him most."
The dedication was spearheaded by Select Board member John Boyle, who declined the spotlight but who was thanked several times during the ceremony. The Rev. Christopher Malatesta of St. Agnes' Church gave the invocation and blessed the plaque, Mary Verdi sang and played the guitar and Kirk Daehling gave brief remarks in thanking the gathering.
"One of the defining characteristics of our friendship was his willingness to just say 'yes,' and embrace whatever adventures life threw his way," said his friend and classmate Greg Owen. Daehling was up for a local challenge course but couldn't find the time. Now, his face and name are imprinted on the Mitch's Mudders team T-shirts every year.
"He had a tremendous love for country and a sense that he needed to do what was right no matter what the risks," Owen said. "So of course, he said yes to putting on the uniform and serving his country, which he did with distinction. How fitting it is that we dedicate this particular bridge, one that leads to that school, where we forged friendships that transcend distance and time."
Wahconah alum James Slater, who retired from the Army National Guard last year after a 42-year military career, said he'd searched for inspiration for his speech in the story of Donald Stratton, who was seriously injured on the USS Arizona at Pearl Harbor but recuperated to be in Tokyo Bay for the Japanese surrender, and the movie "Saving Private Ryan."
Slater said Stratton was particularly struck by the film's ending, when Ryan as an old man goes to Europe with his family to find the grave Capt. John H. Miller, the man who saved him. He turns to his wife and asks, "have I led a good life?"
"An odd question, it seems, but this point, in that old soldier's life, it is the only question that matters," Slater read from Stratton's book. "Wonder if you will be remembered when you're gone. Wonder who will remember you and why.
And you realize what really matters is the family that goes on without you."
Slater said the question of if you're leading a good life echoed in his mind as well.
"I think we all understand that military service is not for everyone," he said. "So we need to ask ourselves, what is our part? How do we as free citizens who enjoy the rights and privileges of living in a free country do our part? How do we honor their sacrifice? ...
"Are we honoring Spc. Mitchell Daehling's memory, and those like him, who have made the ultimate sacrifice? So in closing, I beseech everyone here today, each time we pass this bridge, we see that plaque, ask ourselves are we leading a good life? Are we leading a life that honors his memory and those like him and are we encouraging others to do the same?"
Patrick Carnevale, director of Gov. Charlie Backer's Western Mass office, presented a citation from the governor's office.
"As the parent of three 22-year-olds — that's right, three of them — I'm sure there's not a day that doesn't go by that Mitchell is not in any family or friends' minds," he said. "That's why I think it's wonderful that we dedicated this bridge because the rest of us can always remember the ultimate sacrifice Mitchell made."
The family also received framed prints of the signage on both sides of the span that declare its name as the Daehling Bridge from District 1 Highway Director Francisca Heming.
Cathy Grady, a teacher and now guidance counselor at the high school, said the bridge was the Wahconah bridge and crossing it brought them to learning, sports, music, love and friendship — and the occasional fight or mischief.
"I've been wondering as I've crossed this bridge, these past few days, that now and forever there's Mitch's name. Why is it that we choose to dedicate bridges in memory of those who gave their lives for our freedom?" she asked, noting Dalton has two other bridges that memorialize Vietnam War casualties, one for Gary Benjamin and Patrick J. Muraca, and the other for Michael Casey.
The word bridge can be a noun or a verb and can define connections and teamwork and crossings, she continued and, referring back to what the Malatesta had said in his invocation, "building bridges instead of building walls has become an very important concept in today's world."
"Crossing a bridge carries with it the picture of making a change, which can bring growth, challenge and reward and in his young life, Mitch daily both crossed and built many bridges," Grady said. "Mitch, for all the bridges that you cross, and all of the bridges that you built, we will forever remember and honor you for the boy you were and the man you became.
"This bridge is solid, it makes us feel safe. And now it will be an eternal reminder that you are a part of our community."
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