By Emma Hall
My knowledge and interest in Hoosick’s fallen soldiers began in 2017 with the Town of Hoosick Tribute Flag Program, when I picked up a flyer at my church and knew immediately I had to get involved. Young Private Robert Kent Gardner, who died at age 17 during World War One, was the first of our heroes that I met.
As I write this, his picture watches me from my bulletin board, reminding me that my freedom is not free, my day-to-day trials are often really quite trivial, and that I’d better make my life count for something. For this soldier’s face is the personification of what liberty cost, a reminder that beyond the names were people, lives, and loves.
Part of my work with the Hoosick Township Historical Society is helping to make sure that Gardner, along with Hoosick’s other 100+ fallen soldiers – lost from the Civil War up to the Cold War – are honored and remembered. Armed with several online resources and a shelf full of fat scrapbooks from the museum archives, I am in the process of creating easy-to-access files for every one of these soldiers, uncovering not only their branches, battles, and dates of death, but their life stories beyond the wars: the things they loved and the people they left behind.
Some of these stories would break your heart to read. In these scrapbooks I meet soldiers who never met their children, soldiers who nearly pulled through but didn’t quite, soldiers whose bodies were never recovered. Some of these men were newlyweds, others only sons, and yet others high school musicians and local sports stars. Among the yellowed letters, obituaries, and funeral bulletins, carefully preserved by the museum staff through the years, details reveal themselves. I read about favorite songs, humorous incidents, cherished activities, and happy events – things that remind me just how alive these men were and make their deaths feel more real and tragic.
And that is the heart of it. These soldiers of ours must be remembered not merely because they died, but because they lived. Because when their names came up in God’s book they left behind something – hopes, dreams, homes, friends, families. In the social media tribute posts I put together on these soldiers’ birthdays, anniversaries, and dates of death, I try to add some of these details, so that those who read the posts and see the faces will have something tangible to remember them by.
There are multiple reasons for taking the time to remember our fallen heroes in detail. At the very root of it, even should their remembrance have no benefit to society, they would still be deserving of it because of what they gave. But it goes past that. The more we can see beyond the names to the faces and the stories they belong to, the more we are able to appreciate the immensity of their sacrifices for us, and consequently, the more willing we become to live our lives in a way that honors those sacrifices. This in turn makes us better neighbors, friends, and American citizens. Living our lives with an awareness of what was given, I believe – more than flowers on a grave or a moment of silence on Memorial Day – is the true measure of our respect; anyone can leave flowers, but only someone who truly appreciates what was done for them will live their life in a way that reflects and treasures that priceless gift.
One dear friend of our Historical Society who lives his life in a way that pays tribute to America’s heroes is Bill Schaaf. This past winter, I went with Tom McMartin and Howie Wright to the First Reformed Church of Schenectady, where, as a room full of elected officials and veterans looked on, Bill was presented with the Four Chaplains Award in recognition of all he has done for the men and women who serve us. As Captain of the Patriot Guard Riders of New York and an Army veteran himself, over the years Bill Schaaf has gone above and beyond for members of our military and the people who love them, participating in countless honor flights, missions, and funerals. It was Bill Schaaf and his riders who carried and raised our Liberty flag at many of the battlefields and cemeteries of Hoosick’s fallen during the seven-year mission of the Town of Hoosick Tribute Flag Program to honor these local heroes. It was a profound experience – and an honor I don’t think Tom, Howie, or I will ever forget – to be there as Bill Schaaf accepted his well-earned award for his recognition of those who buy our freedom with their blood.
I have chills now as I write, for it is a grand thing to be a part of, this work of remembering. But it is not enough merely to remember, as Howie, Tom, and I reflected on as we made the long drive home from Schenectady that evening. We must teach others to remember as well. Once you know the stories, we concluded, it is impossible not to care, and once you care, remembrance is not so hard. We all know freedom is not free, but sometimes it is easy to forget just what the cost looks like. When you see the faces and know the stories behind them, the price seems so much steeper, the gift so much more valuable.
As I look up now, Private Gardner is still watching me. His face is serene, but his eyes are profound. His obituary says that he was of “unfailing good disposition and kindly ways,” the only child of his parents. He was born in Fox Hollow, the grandson of an English immigrant. He went to Sunday School at the First Baptist Church of Hoosick Falls, where my uncle preaches now and where I used to take piano lessons. He should have lived. Boys like him don’t deserve to be mown down by machine guns on smoky September mornings in France. Unfortunately, there is nothing I can do to change his fate, but I will do what I can: I will remember him. For beyond the names are faces, and the face of Private Robert Kent Gardner is the face of freedom to me.