PENN YAN — A handful of veterans and current U.S. soldiers recently received the rock-star treatment at St. Michael School, where students excitedly gathered around them and clamored for autographs.
The entire student body assembled around the flagpole in front of the school Nov. 10 for a celebration in honor of Veterans Day. A color guard from the Penn Yan post of the Veterans of Foreign Wars stood at attention, as did five members of the U.S. Army’s 770th Engineers Company and several other veterans, including parents of St. Michael students and Father Jack O’Connor, a retired priest serving Our Lady of the Lakes Catholic Community.
The early Veterans Day commemoration was important for two main reasons, Principal David Paddock announced at the beginning of the celebration.
“We have veterans and current members of the military here today. We’re going to honor our veterans, those people who keep us safe and keep us free,” Paddock explained.
Veterans Day provides an ideal time for all American citizens to remember the large debt of gratitude we owe to these veterans, servicemen and servicewomen, he added.
“The other reason we’re here is so our boys and girls at St. Michael School really understand how important our veterans are and understand why we have no school tomorrow,” Paddock said. “It might seem like a vacation, but I’d rather have you think of it as a holiday to celebrate our freedom and honor our veterans.”
Father O’Connor led those assembled in prayer, and the children and adults joined together to recite the Pledge of Allegiance and sing “America the Beautiful” and “God Bless America.” The fourth- and fifth-grade classes recited a Veterans Day poem before joining the rest of the students in a rousing rendition of “Oh, Veterans,” which was sung to the tune of “O Christmas Tree.”
For many students, a highlight of the celebration was the color guard’s rifle salute and playing of “Taps.” At least one student dove to the ground when the sharp sounds of the rifle shots shattered the crisp November air. Many others quickly clapped gloved hands to their ears as the shots rang out, and they looked at each other with wide-eyed surprise.
After the echo of the shots had died away, several veterans presented Paddock with a folded American flag on behalf of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, and Paddock said he was proud to accept the flag on behalf of the St. Michael family.
“When we return to school on Thursday morning we’ll raise it up,” he said.
Paddock asked the teachers to initiate a discussion about Veterans Day when they returned to their classrooms after the celebration. He also asked students to talk to their families about Veterans Day and tell them what they learned during St. Michael’s celebration.
“I want you to do a little bit of research on the meaning and importance of Veterans Day, and when we come back to school on Thursday I might ask some of you at morning prayers what you talked about with your parents. We’ll continue to talk about it for a few days,” he said.
Fourth-grader Emily Wunder said she’d never really given too much thought to the meaning of Veterans Day, even though her father, George Wunder, is a former Marine and a veteran of Desert Storm. Her father, for his part, was grateful for the opportunity to help his daughter learn more about the meaning behind Veterans Day.
“To me it’s very important that the young kids get exposed to things like Veterans Day and get to meet real live people, and can recognize people they know as veterans and realize what we’ve done and get to know why we do it,” he said.
Veterans are heroes, but they may not necessarily look like the heroes children see portrayed on TV, he noted.
“We’re real people,” he said.
Mike Willis, a member of the VFW color guard, said he was glad to see St. Michael students taking such an interest in Veterans Day. Fellow color guard member Dan Henries Sr. said he and many soldiers encountered a vastly different attitude when they returned home from the Korean War.
“It was a different era. They didn’t really care about us,” Henries said.
The general public today seems to have a much greater awareness of war and veterans than they did a generation or two ago, probably because of the current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, said Jens Jensen, another veteran and color guard member. There are so many people currently serving their country overseas that these wars have touched almost everyone in one way or another, added fellow veteran and color guard member Andy Swarthout.
“There are so many people that are involved in the war right now that I think they do have an awareness,” he said. “It’s a great feeling to see that the kids are getting involved and they can see and understand what it (Veterans Day) is.”