Opinion: Enlightening students on Veterans Day

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Commentary by Ward Degler

A special event came to Monon Trail Elementary School in Westfield last Friday. A Veterans Day observance for members of the third and fourth grades. It also was an opportunity for veterans of several wars to sit with youngsters and field their questions about their service. It was particularly special for me because my great-grandson, Jacoby Walker, was among the fourth graders.

The event started with a presentation explaining to the kids what Veterans Day is, how it came to be and what it means. It is always Nov. 11 because back in 1919, little more than a dusty day in history for all of us there on Friday, World War I officially ended. It became immediately significant that the armistice was signed by all of the warring parties at 11 a.m. on the 11th of November – the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month.

Originally, the holiday was called Armistice Day because that’s what it celebrated. But when World War II came along, then Korea, and ultimately Vietnam, the name was changed to Veterans Day, honoring veterans of all wars.

After the introduction, the kids migrated to round tables where a veteran waited at each, ready to answer questions. There was a supply of cupcakes on each table, which encouraged speedy sitting and rapt attention.

“Did you ever shoot anyone?” was a popular question. None of us had, but some had come close. We explained that wars are fought by people who drive trucks and sit behind desks as well as those with guns.

“What is your most vivid memory of the war?” was another inquiry. I don’t know what the other men said. There was a retired fighter pilot, a medical service officer, an infantry soldier who spent two years in the jungles of Vietnam, and two active duty men who had served in Afghanistan. My most memorial time was leading navy photographers through the streets of Washington, D.C., documenting President John F. Kennedy’s funeral. Rather than document the funeral, however, we took pictures of the crowd. Someone came by for our film every few minutes. We guessed they were looking for persons of interest. After all, the president had been assassinated, and nobody really knew yet how many might have been involved.

When the time was up, and we had finished our cupcakes and conversation, I was confident the Monon Trail third- and fourth-graders had a better understanding of what a veteran is and why recognizing his sacrifice is an important thing to remember on the 11th of November every year.

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