At a playground in Sound Beach resides a small memorial dedicated to Bruce Kerndl and Charles Prchal, two American servicemen who died in Vietnam in 1966 and 1969, respectively.
Every year on Veterans Day, Sound Beach resident Jim Henke, a local Vietnam War veteran who fought alongside these fallen heroes, leads an informal dedication ceremony to celebrate their lives. This year would be no different.
On Friday, Nov. 11, Henke led the morning service once again. He has held this service every year since 1997, he said. To the small crowd of spectators gathered at the playground, he outlined why he comes back.
“They died in vain, horrible deaths for Charlie and Bruce, and in combat,” he said. “We’re going to die at home, and we’ve lived our lives. They didn’t have that chance.”
Despite the solemn occasion of this gathering, the mood was joyful and uplifting. Henke and others delivered impromptu speeches throughout the morning, with plenty of jokes and humorous anecdotes.
Henke described the event as spontaneous and unrehearsed without a script, a program or a list of speakers. What is spoken, he noted, comes from the heart. “I do everything from the top of my head,” he said.
Henke then opened the floor for anyone to acknowledge a veteran in his or her own life. For him, Veterans Day is not a day for solitary reflection but for family, friends and community to come together to honor the fallen. For this reason, the yearly memorial is a highly collaborative setting.
In holding this service, Henke keeps the memory and legacy of Kerndl and Prchal alive. Though their deaths were premature, Henke refuses to let them be forgotten.
“Their parents went to their grave knowing that their sons weren’t forgotten,” he said. “I promised them I’ll do it until I die.”