Several classrooms’ worth of students gathered Monday in an assembly at Marion-Walker Elementary School — rowdy, loud and full of energy.
The normal faces were present — teachers, staff, the principal. But conspicuous near the front of the hall was a group of adults, several of them in uniform. Insignias shone brightly in silver and gold. Camouflage stood out, quite opposite of its intended purpose, from the brightly colored sweaters and blouses worn by teachers.
These eight veterans — Navy Cmdr. David Ashe; Marine Corps Maj. Beth Ashe; Army Capt. Keith Guiswite; along with Jason Mitchell, Adam Kuhlman, William Neumann and Josh Engeert, from the Army, and Betty Glass, from the Air Force — were there not only to speak to the school’s students, but to be recognized for their service and sacrifice.
The Veterans Day celebration, which has been an annual occurrence at the school since before any teachers could remember, kicked off with the Pledge of Allegiance and the national anthem led by a stage full of students.
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Banners depicting the seals of each military branch were held by students. One by one, children stepped onto the stage, reading the reasons for the event off signs.
“It’s a day that we set aside to honor and thank the brave men and women who have served our country and fought to protect it,” a girl said.
“Have you ever met a veteran?” a boy asked shortly after. He then educated the audience: There are 25 million living today. They live in every town and city in America and in every walk of life. They are moms, dads, grandfathers, uncles and cousins.
After the presentation, the school was treated to a short show by the Penn State Air Force ROTC Honor Guards, who spun off a precision display of rifle-handling that took about a week to practice.
“We’ve done this for a couple years,” cadet Jordan Dunbar said. “It’s good to give back to the community.”
Students then went to their respective classrooms to have a veteran address their class individually. Neumann and Engeert spoke to the kindergarteners in Cheryl DeCusati’s class.
Neumann, since retired from the Army, explained he was stationed at Fort Bragg, N.C., and Fort Campbell, astride the Tennessee/Kentucky border, and served in Panama and Operation Desert Storm as well as recent tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. Engeert served six years, including two in Iraq.
The conversation quickly took a turn toward weapons, the children talking about guns owned by parents, a BB gun owned by a friend or a personally owned Nerf gun.
“We never touch guns,” one girl pointed out. “You stop, don’t touch, leave it and tell a parent.”
Neumann explained that owning firearms is one of the freedoms veterans work to protect, saying “That’s one of the things we’re really fortunate to have, to have that much freedom still in our country.”
He also let children try on his Desert Storm helmet and explained how the Meal Ready to Eat, commonly known as an MRE, provides nutrition on the go.
Interacting with the children is “a lot of fun,” he said, adding, “It’s a nice way for kids to get to know the military not in a scary way.”
Such events help create a friendlier image for military personnel, he said, much like when police officers or firefighters come speak to them.
“We go over some of the same things,” like ‘don’t play with matches,’ or ‘don’t play with guns,’” he said. “The more they hear the same thing, the more likely they pay attention and take it to heart.”
DeCusati said she feels the children take away a greater appreciation and understanding of what veterans do and what they’ve done to preserve freedom and safety.
“The more they understand,” she said, “the more they can show respect and honor them and understand what they’ve done.”
Once the veterans left, the students discussed what they saw and wrote in their journals about the experience, DeCusati said. That helped reinforce the event for the children so they could better remember points from the assembly and talks, she said.
Principal Sharlene Yontosh said the event helps the children understand that the military is a real thing by making a personal connection to an actual human being. It’s not just an abstract person on a battlefield, she said, but real mothers, fathers, grandfathers and grandmothers.
“When we talk about the Air Force, it’s not just words,” she said. “It’s people. People doing great things.”