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Holladay Journal

Words, songs of gratitude by schoolchildren thank veterans

Dec 02, 2022 12:12PM ● By Julie Slama

By Julie Slama | [email protected]

Schoolchildren across the Salt Lake Valley thanked veterans and active military personnel for their service through school programs featuring students singing patriotic songs or sharing special words in appreciation of their sacrifice and service.

At many schools, it was the return of in-person assemblies after virtual celebrations or classroom programs. It also meant veterans and those serving were welcomed back into schools to be honored.

Here’s a look at what four area elementary schools did to honor those who are or have served the country as well as two students who wrote essays for the Utah PTA Veterans Day essay contest.

McMillan Elementary, Murray School District

Twenty-two active military and veterans, some in full uniform, stood with the singing of their branch of service during the Armed Forces on the stage of the 68-year-old McMillan Elementary, looking into the audience of first- through sixth-grade students.

“That was really sweet,” said McMillan PTA President Andrea Pili, who has overseen the program the past six years. “They always sing along to it. They’re just really proud to stand for their song.”

The ceremony began with a flag ceremony conducted by local Girl Scouts who attend the school; students in each grade level sang patriotic songs including “You’re a Grand Old Flag,” “This Land is Your Land,” “My Country Tis of Thee” and “America the Beautiful;” and featured a slide show of the McMillan students, staff and faculty’s relatives and friends who have served.

“It makes the assembly more special for them, and the kids love to see there are people personal to their teachers,” she said.

Select students shared their own words of thanks to their guests.

Second-grader Isaac Smith’s great-grandfather flew a B-17 bomber during World War II. Isaac shared his story:

“On a bombing mission, his plane was shot down. He parachuted out of the plane and landed in a farmer’s field. The farmer turned him over to the German army and he was taken to a prisoner of war camp. He had to ride in a box car without any seats for four days straight. He was only able to get out of the car for one hour a day. He was in the prison camp for eight months and then the war ended, and he was freed. He went home and lived a wonderful life. He died in 2013 at the age of 89. My great grandpa’s life-long motto was, ‘Perfect or better.’ He is one of my biggest heroes.”

Fourth-grader James Dunkelberger shared that he “thought about how veterans chose to serve others instead of just themselves” and reflected on ways he could do that now, such as doing his chores and taking care of the family dog, having a positive attitude in class to create a good classroom environment, and obeying the school rules of being respectful, responsible and safe.

“It isn’t always easy to do things for others,” James wrote. “It would be easier just to do whatever I wanted. I am thankful for everyone who chooses to put themselves second in order to create a better place for the members of our community, society and world.”

Fifth-graders Janessa and Galen Bancroft’s grandpa served in the military and their mom served in the Air Force as imagery intelligence. In their essay, they shared: “They fought for our justice which means they fought for the rights we have today and our freedoms. We’re here today because of them and other people who fought for us. It is important to remember those who served because they fought for us and their freedoms too. When we think of heroes we think of guardians, soldiers, relatives, educators, health care workers, and people who keep us safe. We should always remember our heroes and thank them every day.”

Fifth-grader Ava Pili wrote: “Courageous, serve, honor, brave, protect, and willing. These are all the words that describe our amazing military men and women.” While Ava doesn’t have a family member who is active in the service now, she told McMillan’s guests: “Thank you for the freedoms we enjoy and for showing us what bravery is. Your sacrifice and service should not and will not be forgotten.”

Suzie (last name and grade withheld) said she was grateful to be an American.

“Being an American means to be free and united as one country,” she said. “Because of veterans, we are free. It is our duty to celebrate and express gratitude for the brave men and women who have fought and who continue to fight for our country, the United States of America.”

The assembly concluded with the entire student body singing, “God Bless the USA.”

“The kids are just belting it out, honoring them, singing their little hearts out,” Pili said. “It's a beautiful way to end the program and a great way for our students to express their gratitude through music and words. It’s a very touching tribute.”

Woodstock Elementary, Murray, Granite School District

Woodstock Elementary students invited veterans in their lives to attend their after-school program that also featured a PowerPoint slide presentation of those who are serving or served in the Armed Forces.

“It tugs at my heart,” said fifth-grade teacher Kate Axtell, who has family members who have served in the military. “When the kids sing the ‘Armed Forces Medley,’ the little old men stand up and are crying. The kids are crying back at the veterans because they can't believe how much it means to them. Afterward, the kids say it’s the coolest thing they’ve ever done.”

The program also featured songs from World War I, such as “Over There,” “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary” and “Till We Meet Again” and World War II songs, including “Sentimental Journey.”

Sprinkled into the program were some of the 90 fifth-graders sharing their thanks and appreciation to the veterans for the service. Axtell, who has coordinated the program three times, said the students rehearsed for two months, tying it into their curriculum of learning American history. 

“They’ve learned about the different wars, and we talked about the music we sang and what it meant. I showed them where Tipperary is and we talked about it, we talked about the trenches, and they know the history of Armistice Day being the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month when the Great War ended,” Axtell said. “We’re wanting our students to think about their lives and have them understand the sacrifice and service.”

As part of the school’s celebration, third-graders wrote thank you letters to veterans and were sharing them with those in a local veteran’s hospital as well as one in California. The school’s PTA decorated for the celebration and provided refreshments.

Channing Hall, Draper charter school

Fifth-grader Dhruv Sinha Ray gave visiting veterans at Channing Hall a pin he designed to honor their service.

The pin design is an annual school contest; students create designs and one is selected to be turned into a pin for the veterans.

This year’s design shows the silhouette of a soldier saluting with an American flag in the background; below are the words, “Proud To Serve.”

At the assembly, the American Legion Color Guard performed a flag folding ceremony and the 50-member combined school choir and chorus performed the national anthem and the song, “Heroes,” written by school music teacher, Jamie Bunker.

Three speakers shared their thoughts on Veterans Day.

Raj Chowdhary, who served in the Air Force and National Guard and father to two Channing Hall students, worked on F-16 Infrared Cameras and Laser Targeting Systems; and program manager Quinn Good, spoke about the Salt Lake City VA Fisher House that provides living arrangements for families while veterans are getting medical treatment.

Channing Hall science teacher Jeff Meyers spoke about his service in the Army, including his lead up to and deployment to Afghanistan as a radio transceiver operator.

“I attended several Army training schools familiarizing me with the technology I needed to know to work in the TOC (Tactical Operations Command) in Afghanistan,” he said. “I went with my unit to the JRTC or Joint Readiness Training Center in Fort Polk, Louisiana, where we conducted live action combat and operations training for a month. I found out that my wife, Kim, was pregnant shortly before deploying to Afghanistan. In Afghanistan, my battalion was in the Northern Kunar province, a remote mountainous northern part of the country bordering on Pakistan. I served in combat there and received the Combat Infantryman Badge as well as several Army Commendation Medals (ARCOM) and a battlefield promotion. My second son, Brennon, was born 2 weeks before I returned home.”

Meyers continued his service stateside, graduating from the Army Leadership Academy in the top 5% of the class and earning his Expert Infantryman Badge.

“I loved my time in the Army and am proud to have served my country,” he said.

As a school-wide service project, Channing Hall students brought in paper products ranging from Kleenex to paper plates to donate to the Fisher House.

Schoolchildren and staff also brought in photos of family members who served, which were displayed on a bulletin board, in appreciation of their service.

The Veterans’ Day program dates back to the early years of the school’s 16-year history, with this being the first year returning to the assembly after the COVID-19 pandemic, said Annette Mumford, president of the Channing Hall Parent-Teacher Organization that organized the event and provided refreshments for the veterans and guests afterward.

Quail Hollow Elementary, Sandy, Canyons School District

Army Master Sgt. Aaron Hilton and Air Force Lt. Col. Mark Hasara were guest speakers at Quail Hollow’s Veterans Day program.

After the presentation of the colors by the Utah National Guard and national anthem by Liz Longaker, veterans stood to be recognized and waved to Quail Hollow students. 

Then, they watched a clip of Col. Gail Halvorsen, known as “The Candy Bomber,” who frequently spoke to Utah schoolchildren about his World War II experiences dropping candy to children in Berlin. He died this past February.

There also was the recognition of Marine Corps SSgt. Darin Taylor Hoover, a nearby Hillcrest High School graduate, who died last year. A moment of silence followed, honoring all deceased veterans.

Relatives and friends who have served and are serving of Quail Hollow students were highlighted in a video after Brighton High sophomore Alexis Schramm played “Taps.”

With the help of volunteers, Melinda Rosevear has coordinated the school’s program for several years, highlighting veterans who have served in different time periods of history.

“It's important we highlight this and bring awareness to our students the significance of their dedication and service and its meaning,” she said. “This brings our community together.”

Silver Mesa Elementary, Sandy, and Draper Park Middle, Canyons School District

Two Canyons District students, Silver Mesa’s fifth-grade student Azaylea Olson and Draper Park’s eighth-grader Noa Pack, won the Utah PTA 500-word essay contest, “Why I am Proud of my Veteran!” 

Azaylea, who loves playing cribbage with her grandfather who she calls Poppy, wrote her essay about his service in the Navy, starting with boot camp when he was up at 6 a.m., washed his clothes on cement tables, marched for eight hours per day, learned about M1 rifles, put on gas masks before entering burning buildings, then going to bed at 10 p.m.

After boot camp, he was assigned to a naval air station in Alaska when an earthquake struck.

“He climbed a mountain behind his barracks because of a tsunami warning and watched as the tsunami rolled up 40 feet high,” she wrote. “The tsunami took six planes off the runway into the water. They had to fish the planes out of the water.”

Her Poppy went on to have other challenges during his military time, including serving in Vietnam.

“I am proud of my Poppy, my grandfather, for serving in the military,” she wrote adding that “his job was very important as he was responsible for sending top secret information to our troops, so they had all the information they needed to be safe themselves. He is my veteran and my hero.”

Noa’s dad is currently deployed as a member of the Utah Army National Guard, and she now understands why her dad has missed special occasions and family gatherings.

“He has worked long hours, missed many family events, and has even known the hardship of soldiers who have fallen, both on and off the battlefield,” she wrote. “My dad has missed first steps, birthdays, anniversaries, school projects, and boy drama. However, he is still my biggest hero and role model in everything he does.”

In Noa’s words, “being a veteran means valuing safety, not just for us but for our country. That is why my dad goes to work every day, and I am proud of his sacrifice to help keep America protected.”