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New London - As they have for the past 41 years, the local Veterans of Foreign Wars post tonight will honor a city police officer and firefighter of the year.
The annual tradition, held the Saturday before Veterans Day, will also honor a "man of the year" and a men's and women's auxiliary member of the year.
"We've been doing it for a long time," said Charlie Doyle, a past commander of VFW Post No. 189. "We like to honor the veterans, but also our police officers and firefighters. They get a special pin to wear on their uniforms."
Seven-year veteran Officer Max Bertsch will receive the police honor tonight for his dedication to the city's youth as the School Resource Officer. Police Chief Margaret Ackley said Bertsch "gives 100 percent every day."
"Max is an officer who is always willing to help others, he never expects praise for his hard work, he does it because of his passion and belief in what he does," Ackley said in an email. "Max is an example of what we should all strive to be as police officers."
Reached Friday, Bertsch said he was surprised and humbled by the recognition, but he modestly deflected the praise.
"So many of the people I work with, from detectives to special services to patrol officers, there are so many talented people, and I'm truly honored to be selected," Bertsch said. "I'm very fortunate to have the position I have because it enables me to work with not only police officers and students but also community members."
Bertsch said he loves his daily interactions with students, which he said helps embody the idea of community policing. He also pointed to a recent downtown Halloween event, where community members came together to create a free, safe event at the city's Waterfront Park that drew more than 1,000 people who trick-or-treated and enjoyed different downtown businesses.
"It's encouraging to see in New London that a grass-roots group of people are coming out to work with the youth, and it's really neat to coordinate that," Bertsch said.
Firefighters chose Timothy O'Reilly, who has been with the department for about five years, as its honoree. Rocco Basilica, the firefighters' union president, said O'Reilly has made a big impact in the department during his short time there. From his work on the ambulance to rescuing a woman from a burning building, Basilica said O'Reilly has been the subject of many happy and appreciative emails and letters from community members pleased with his service.
"He has always been a hard worker and brings a lot to the table," Basilica said. "He also kept his head up because he was one of the guys that were laid off. To keep his focus through all the negative things in New London, it's rough, but he's a decent kid, a hard worker and as a guy with only a few years, he's already stepped up."
Charles M. Pickett will be honored as the VFW's Man of the Year. Charlotte Zito has been named the Ladies' Auxiliary Woman of the Year, and the Men's Auxiliary Man of the Year is Kevin McBride, said Doyle. McBride is also a New London police sergeant.
Doyle said this is the 42nd consecutive year the awards have been given. He recalled Frederic Philopena and Gerard Gaynor as the original firefighter and police officer honorees. Bertsch said he was "honored" to be among such a group.
"And getting it from the VFW, I couldn't think of a better organization than the Veterans of Foreign Wars. I'm truly humbled and appreciate this," he said.
What: 42nd annual awards night
When: Tonight, cocktails at 6 p.m. followed by banquet
Where: VFW Post No. 189, 110 Garfield Ave., New London
Cost: $12 per ticket