Dozens of military veterans and their families drew heartfelt applause time and time again during the inaugural Veterans Day program at Westwood Elementary School.
But no ovation was louder than the one for Vernon Sigman, a U.S. Navy veteran from Trafalgar. As the only World War II veteran in attendance, the entire gymnasium — students, teachers, parents and other veterans — stood to show their appreciation.
The applause for Sigman was one of the many moving moments during Thursday’s program, which drew hundreds of people to Westwood. Students gave musical presentations honoring all five branches of the military, a local 31-year veteran shared his experience and perspective, and the entire assembly gave a moment of silence for fallen soldiers.
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The program gave the Westwood community the chance to show their appreciation for veterans and their families, in addition to showcasing what they had spent the past weeks learning about military service and history.
“Every morning, we say the pledge to the flag. But sometimes, we take for granted the country we live in. We have the freedom to go to school, to have a lot of things and do the activities that we want to do. We owe a great deal of gratitude to the veterans who have served,” said David Ennis, principal at Westwood. “We want to give a heartfelt thanks on behalf of the Westwood students, the Westwood staff, for your sacrifice for our country.”
The program was envisioned by Paige Rauschuber, Westwood’s music specialist. This is her first year with the school and in learning the traditions and performances that were important to the music program, she discovered that nothing was being done around Veterans Day.
“Coming in as the new music teacher, one of the first questions I asked was what programs we do here,” Rauschuber said. “To find out that we only did a winter program and spring program, and that we didn’t do anything for veterans, I thought it was an opportunity for the whole school to participate.”
Rauschuber had done a similar event at schools in the past, and used those templates to create something unique for Westwood. She worked with each grade level, as well as Westwood’s life skills program, to ensure all students had a role in honoring the veterans.
Kindergarten students read a poem recognizing the sacrifice that military personnel make for all of us. Each grade level honored a different military branch, with some students reading history and facts about the branch before the entire grade proudly sang the songs of the Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps, Army and Coast Guard.
“They were all really excited, that they were going to be able to perform a military song for people who have actually served in those branches is exciting,” Rauschuber said. “You can see it on the faces of children who have family members who are veterans.”
Maybe the most touching moment came from Bob Craven, a 31-year veteran of the U.S. Army whose grandson, Markus Craven, is a third-grader at Westwood. Craven spoke about his observations, and the difficulties both veterans and families face as a result of their service.
“Most Americans profess to truly love our veterans, especially at gatherings like this on Veterans Day and Memorial Day. But it’s important to remember that veterans are defending us 365 days a year,” he said. “Their heroism has been demonstrated time and time again, from veterans in the American Revolution to the global war on terrorism, and sometimes goes unnoticed by those who enjoy the security they sacrifice for.”
He shared his most moving experience at the end. Craven told the story of a recent trip he and Markus had taken to Washington, D.C. Visiting all of the war memorials, they stopped at the Vietnam Wall. Craven had served in Vietnam, and had told his grandson how the different names on the memorial were in honor of the men killed during the conflict.
Markus thanked his grandfather for being in that war, and for staying alive. Then, he walked to the wall and started to read every name on the wall. At each one, he’d say thank you for serving, or that he was sorry they had to die to protect people.
Other tourists took notice, and started following the little boy. A memorial ranger finally asked why he was doing that.
“Markus said, ‘A lot of people never thanked these men, so I am,’” Craven said. “A widow of a fallen hero came up and hugged me and him, saying she could now have closure because of Markus.”
At the close of the story, Craven asked his grandson to stand. Markus, wearing a camouflage Army outfit, stood while the entire gymnasium clapped and stood to cheer. Next to Markus, a hand shot up to give him a high-five.
“If a little boy can understand, why can’t we adults act like this?” Craven said.
In the coming days, we will profile our communities’ veterans and bring you stories and photos from events across the county where veterans are being honored and thanked for their service.