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With strong showing at nationals, Fall Mountain JROTC looks to build on success
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LANGDON — A small group of Fall Mountain Regional High School JROTC students started last school year as one of about 1,700 teams competing in the national program’s leadership bowl.

By the end of the year, they had advanced through two rounds of the quiz-bowl-style contest that tests students on their knowledge of current events and leadership values and skills, putting them in the top two percent of all teams. Then, in July, the team finished seventh in the country out of 40 teams at the national championship in Washington, D.C., a result Cadet Lt. Col. Serena Rathke said came as an “absolute shock.”

“We have like 50 cadets in our program, and a lot of these schools have hundreds,” said Rathke, a senior from Alstead who serves as battalion commander for Fall Mountain’s JROTC. “… To be competing against them was absolutely mind-blowing. It was crazy.”

The other members of the Fall Mountain team were Alexandra Booth of Alstead, Jesse Fisk of Langdon and Harrison Salisbury of Keene. Fisk and Booth were unable to attend the national championship July 19 through 23 on the campus of the Catholic University of America, so Connor Rheaume of Charlestown and Grace St. Pierre of Acworth took their places.

This was the first time the local team advanced to the national championship since Fall Mountain began its JROTC program in 1996, according to Maj. William Maynard, the program’s senior instructor.

“I was very proud of the team, very proud of the program, for their accomplishments,” said Maynard, a Manchester resident who retired from the U.S. Army in 2013 after a 28-year career and is in his sixth year leading the JROTC program at Fall Mountain. Along with a curriculum focused primarily on career and technical education courses, the program offers various co-curricular opportunities like the leadership bowl and marksmanship and drill teams.

U.S. Army JROTC, or Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps — a national leadership development program for high-school students — covered the cost of the trip to the nation’s capital. For Salisbury, a senior at Keene High School who participates in Fall Mountain’s JROTC through the Cheshire Career Center, the flight into Washington made the whole experience feel real, and significant.

“Seeing the monuments flying in was a really important memory for me,” said Salisbury, a cadet captain who serves as the executive officer, or second in command, for Fall Mountain JROTC.

The one full day of competition included multiple-choice questions on scenarios in which cadets would need to make a management decision, such as when a conflict arises between other cadets. Students also competed in a variety of team-building activities, like holding a tarp full of holes and successfully guiding a ball across the surface. Hutchinson Central Technical High School in Buffalo, N.Y., took the top spot in the national championship.

Outside of the competition, the students got to spend their time meeting other cadets, and sightseeing around D.C.

“We got to do a lot of touring. We saw some of the Smithsonians, which I personally enjoyed,” said St. Pierre, a cadet first lieutenant and junior at Fall Mountain who added that the natural history and Native American history museums were her favorites. “And the competition itself was a lot of fun, as well.”

For Rheaume, the camaraderie between cadets, both during the competition and in down time exploring the city, was the highlight of the trip.

“Definitely the social aspect is a big part of it, but we also learned quite a bit about how to lead and just overall things that can better us as citizens and as ourselves,” said Rheaume, a cadet first lieutenant and junior at Fall Mountain.

Although the social interaction between students was not part of the competition, St. Pierre said she still learned important lessons by becoming friends with peers from places like Texas and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

“Being able to interact with people who are different from you and who have had different experiences, I think is really, really valuable,” she said.

JROTC rules do not allow the same students who reached the national championship to compete in the leadership bowl again the following year, but Fall Mountain’s cadets said that won’t stop them from helping this year’s team build on their success.

“We’ll definitely recruit a lot of people,” St. Pierre said. “I think they’ll be excited to hear that we went [to nationals] last year and that Fall Mountain can have that kind of success. We’re a small school and we’re not really known for academics, so people underestimate what we can really do here. So, we’ll definitely talk to people about our experience, and maybe give some advice, too, when they start to compete.”

Rathke added that she will encourage fellow cadets to try out for the leadership bowl team, especially those who might be hesitant to participate, like she initially was.

“But I will be able to tell them, ‘If you push through the first two phases, then you will be able to go to D.C., you will be able to have a whole bunch of new memories and have a whole bunch of fun,’” Rathke said.

This year’s Fall Mountain JROTC leadership and academic bowl teams will begin forming in October, Maynard said, when students will take a test to help determine who will make the team. After that, the teams will have two rounds of competitions in November and February, with the potential to return to the national championships at the end of June. Maynard said he hopes Fall Mountain will be there again.

“I have long been a believer in building on your successes,” he said. “So that’s my plan.”

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Keene committee recommends accepting $55K in asset forfeiture money
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The Keene Police Department is poised to receive nearly $55,000 in asset forfeiture money after a City Council committee vote Thursday night.

These assets — seized during criminal investigations — are a common revenue stream for law enforcement that proponents say can disrupt crime rings and support police work, while opponents argue the practice gives officers an incentive to take assets to fund police operations.

At a meeting at city hall, the City Council’s Finance, Organization and Personnel Committee voted unanimously to recommend that the full council accept a total of $54,781.26 stemming from assets that were seized during a pair of drug-related investigations that took place between October 2019 and June 2020. Capt. Steven Stewart, who addressed the committee on Thursday, said the investigations were done jointly with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

“We’re mostly using [the money] to further other drug investigations,” Stewart told The Sentinel following the vote. ”Meaning using it to make controlled buys from drug dealers.”

He declined to comment on the details of the investigations, saying they’re being handled at the federal level and that he believed the cases are ongoing. Police Chief Steven Russo, who was not at Thursday’s meeting, did not respond to an email sent Wednesday evening requesting more information.

According to figures given to The Sentinel by Keene Finance Director Merri Howe, the money the department receives from asset forfeitures has been fairly sporadic in recent years. Keene received $10,686.13 in forfeiture money in 2020, after receiving nothing in 2019 and 2018. But in 2017, the city received $42,368.66, and in 2016 received $47,039,67.

Forfeiture money comes from assets — which can be cash or other items — seized when investigators believe they are connected to the commission of a crime. In 2016, New Hampshire passed legislation that requires a person to be convicted of a criminal offense before assets can be forfeited.

However, according to a 2018 report from N.H. Public Radio, the state’s asset forfeiture rules don’t apply to federal cases. “In practice, that means all a state trooper or local cop needs to do is call in federal partners, such as the FBI or Homeland Security, and have them seize the money, even if there isn’t an arrest and conviction,” the story says.

Civil rights organizations, such as the American Civil Liberties Union and the Institute for Justice, have objected to the practice, with the latter calling it “policing for profit.” On its website, the ACLU says forfeiture allows police departments to seize and keep any asset they allege to have been involved in a crime.

“Forfeiture was originally presented as a way to cripple large-scale criminal enterprises by diverting their resources,” the organization says. “But today, aided by deeply flawed federal and state laws, many police departments use forfeiture to benefit their bottom lines, making seizures motivated by profit rather than crime-fighting.

“For people whose property has been seized through civil asset forfeiture, legally regaining such property is notoriously difficult and expensive, with costs sometimes exceeding the value of the property.”

Stewart, however, disputed that asset forfeiture improperly incentivizes officers, saying that the activities are investigated because they cause a nuisance in the community, with increased traffic to and from places where drugs are being sold. He said these investigations typically involve drug dealers rather than those who use drugs but don’t sell them.

The captain also noted that there are restrictions for how the funds can be used. They can’t go toward overtime costs, he said, adding that the money “isn’t going into anyone’s pockets.”

Asked whether the city had ever discussed potentially rethinking its approach to asset forfeiture policy, Assistant City Manager Rebecca Landry said Thursday that the issue has come up on several occasions over the course of her career with the city. She emphasized that the funds are typically used for a specific reason and not considered to be a “profit” for the police department.

“I think that we tend to have restrictions on how that money is spent,” she said. “But it’s certainly worth exploring, and the city’s always open to a conversation like that.”

Biden institutes vaccine rules for many businesses: ‘Our patience is wearing thin’

President Joe Biden, visibly frustrated by the country’s inability to immunize a reluctant chunk of its population in the fight against COVID, said Thursday that the “time for waiting is over” as he uncorked another round of mandates that now touch many private businesses.

“We have the tools to combat COVID-19,” the president said. “And a distinct minority of Americans supported by a distinct minority of public officials are keeping us from turning the corner.”

The blueprint ordered by the White House requires that employers with more than 100 staffers make sure their workers receive shots or take weekly tests, and it creates a new mandate for federal employees who previously had the option of taking frequent tests instead of getting inoculated.

Biden, who was once reluctant to institute mandates in the vaccine effort, has decidedly changed his tone after the delta variant wreaked havoc in a disappointing second summer of the pandemic.

The president first moved to force federal employees to get shots or undergo regular testing six weeks ago, in what was then viewed as a major escalation in the battle to vaccinate Americans.

But on Thursday he pushed the effort into a new gear, pairing his new plans to push people to get vaccinated with his toughest talk of the pandemic.

In a direct appeal to the holdouts, he said, “We’ve been patient, but our patience is wearing thin, and your refusal has cost all of us.”

Roughly 4 million federal workers, plus millions of contractors, will be required to get vaccinated under an executive order signed by Biden on Thursday. Federal workers who do not get vaccinated will face disciplinary action, according to the White House.

The president’s plan also includes provisions to require vaccinations for workers in most health-care centers that receive Medicare or Medicaid dollars, a move intended to cover more than 17 million workers.

“If you’re seeking care at a health facility, you should be able to know that the people treating you are vaccinated,” Biden said in the State Dining Room of the White House. “Simple. Straightforward. Period.”

At the end of spring, the nation appeared to be on the precipice of winning the war against COVID-19. But coronavirus case rates increased tenfold between the beginning of July and the end of August, hampering the country’s economic recovery and putting a damper on the nation’s health and spirits entering a new school year.

The federal government has struggled to meet its vaccination goals amid misinformation about the shots. Some conservative regions of the country continued to have woeful immunization rates during the summer months, despite desperate bipartisan calls for citizens to get vaccinated.

Almost 1 in 5 Americans over the age 65, who face higher risks from COVID, still were not vaccinated as of Thursday, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Overall, about 80 million eligible Americans have so far spurned the shots.

The coronavirus is currently killing about 1,500 people per day in the U.S. The Food and Drug Administration offered full approval to the Pfizer vaccine, offer an additional seal of confidence in the shot.

“What more is there to wait for? What more do you need to see?” Biden said indignantly, leaning over his podium Thursday. “We’ve made vaccinations free, safe and convenient. The vaccine is FDA approved. Over 200 million Americans have gotten at least one shot.”

The most recent jobs report showed American businesses added far fewer new jobs than expected in August. And with workers fretting about pandemic child care and workplace safety, firms cannot fill the millions of job openings they have.

“Our overarching objective here is to reduce the number of unvaccinated Americans,” Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, said in a briefing ahead of Biden’s speech. “There are of course 80 million unvaccinated Americans at this time. We want to decrease that number.”

Critics have framed vaccination mandates as an infringement on their personal rights, a notion the president pushed back on during his address. He said the issue does not revolve around “personal choice.”

“It’s about protecting yourself and those around you — the people you work with, the people you care about, the people you love,” Biden said in the forceful 27-minute speech. “My job as president is to protect all Americans.”

He said he was directing the Department of Labor to craft an emergency rule that would operationalize his effort to get workers at private businesses vaccinated. That rule, though not an airtight mandate, would reach businesses that collectively employ more than 80 million people.

The White House said it was also working on a rule to ensure that employers offer paid time off to workers covering the time it takes to get vaccinated.

“We’re going to protect vaccinated workers from unvaccinated co-workers,” Biden said.

Top Republicans said the president had gone too far with his latest restrictions and punishments.

“President Biden has made small business an enemy of his administration,” Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., the House minority leader, said in a tweet. “Forcing main street to vax or pay a fine will not only crush an economy he’s put on life support — it’s flat-out un-American.”

But Biden framed his moves as an effort to disentangle the nation from a stubborn virus that seemed to be in retreat just weeks ago, when masks were vanishing from coast to coast and the president prematurely announced U.S. “independence” from the pandemic.

On Thursday, he suggested the end is still within reach — if Americans just coalesce behind his vaccination pitch.

“We just have to finish the job,” Biden said, “with truth, with science, with confidence.”

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Keene Fire Chief Mark Howard set to retire next spring
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After eight years in the role, Mark Howard has announced his upcoming retirement as Keene’s fire chief.

Howard, 53, is set to retire on March 31, according to a news release Thursday from City Manager Elizabeth Dragon. Howard succeeded Gary Lamoureux following Lamoureux’s retirement in 2013.

“Because I was always going at a very fast pace, everyone would always say, ‘When it’s time to retire, at least from this job, you’ll know when,’ ” he said Thursday. “... It’s just a good time.”

The son and brother of firefighters, Howard joined the field out of high school, racking up 36 years of service.

Before the Keene Fire Department, Howard worked for the Bellows Falls Fire Department, his hometown station.

He joined Keene Fire as a line firefighter in 1993, and made his way up the ranks as a lieutenant of operations, captain of operations and deputy chief before being appointed chief in 2013. The department has 46 uniformed members.

And he didn’t stop at just fighting fires. As chief, he implemented several new protocols, such as requiring mental health training for first responders and improving techniques conducted out in the field.

“In general, I’ve always tried to advocate for the fire service ... whether it’s related to the mental health of our members or needs for equipment, needs for staffing, and so on,” Howard, of Surry, said. “I’ve always tried to be a strong advocate.”

In the release Thursday, Dragon commended Howard for his service.

"We owe Chief Howard a debt of gratitude for his dedication and contributions to our community," she said. "I wish him many years of uninterrupted nights, weekends, and holidays with his family."

City Councilor Randy Filiault served as a call firefighter with the Keene Fire Department for six years, when he said Howard was a lieutenant.

"He had a more of a hands-on [approach]," Filiault said of Howard, who was involved in his training. "He wouldn’t ask anybody to do something he didn’t do."

Filiault also credited Howard with playing an important role in efforts to modernize the fire department during the years he has served as chief.

Mayor George Hansel said Dragon is beginning the recruitment process for Howard’s successor, which he said will start with gathering input about what characteristics and qualifications this person should have.

As for Howard, he said he doesn’t plan to fully retire. Rather, he’s hoping to find a different career path somewhere locally, though he isn’t sure exactly what yet.

And though excited for his next move, he said he’s grateful for all those who’ve helped him along the way.

“I’ve been mentored, coached, influenced, guided by many, many people,” he said. “I thank all of them.”

Sentinel staff writer Mia Summerson contributed to this report.

This article has been updated with additional information.

Olivia Belanger can be reached at 352-1234, extension 1439, or obelanger@keenesentinel.com. ollow her on Twitter @OBelangerKS.