By Jason Massad
Schools across the state held Veterans Day memorials, but St. Martin’s Episcopal School in Brookhaven transformed it into what educators like to call a “teachable moment.”
For the better part of a month, students were exposed to the real-life stories of veterans who were invited into classrooms to talk about their service and sacrifice to the country.
Take Tom Drewicz, a B-52 navigator who flew with Strategic Air Command during the days of the Cold War.
He served on a combat crew in the Air Force until 1978. One week of every month he was restricted to alert status, ready to fly out of a U.S. air base on a moment’s notice to deter a nuclear threat from Russia.
The effect was palpable on Amanda Stigaard, a 4th grader who listened to Drewicz’s story. She’s heard the roar of planes above her house. Could those be the ones keeping her safe at night, she asked Drewicz?
“I was asking if they were military,” she said. “He said, ‘yes.’”
The Veterans Day ceremony Nov. 11 had a well-prepared, warm feel in the school’s gymnasium. The students were allowed to trade in their school uniform shirts that day for more casual ones of red, white or blue and sometimes red, white and blue.
Outside, student ambassadors welcomed visitors and handed out small, hand-held flags as people entered the morning assembly.
Once the event started, the school band – sometimes in time – played the four military service songs, while students from first to eighth grade walked up onstage and talked before hundreds of onlookers about what they learned in their up-close interactions with veterans.
1st Sgt. Edwin Starks, the keynote speaker, told the students that serving in the military was “like winning the Super Bowl for your favorite team.”
“How can you not honor a person who commits every day of their service to protect you?” he asked “We do it simply for you.”
Veterans who attended were asked to stand and be recognized. Several did, including one who was also celebrating his 90th birthday. After the ceremony, Robert Powell, a World War II Air Force fighter pilot, received cards and words of affection from a throng of students.
The Veterans Day event at St. Martin’s originated shortly after Sep. 11, 2001, said school officials. The program has grown every year since.
“I think this an event that makes students proud to be a part of the community,” said Christina Mimms, director of communications for the school. “This is something that we throw our doors open for to welcome the community.”
Students received a video message from an Army unit with the 3rd Infantry Division stationed in Iraq. The school and its students are connected to the unit primarily through Maj. Chris Auclair, a cousin of a St. Martin’s faculty member.
The West Point graduate is on his third tour in Iraq in the 1st Advise and Assist Brigade, working on training and peacekeeping operations. Students watched a large video screen above the stage, finally able to see a military unit they have sent cards, letters and care packages to, as well as Halloween candy.
“We miss you all and we look forward to spending time with you and our families when we get home,” said one of the four in the video that addressed the students.
As the assembly concluded, students created a “living flag.” Students held up alternating red and white stripes, while reciting some of America’s ideals.
For instance, one student recited the words of Hamilton Fish, an Army Captain in World War I, “If our country is worth dying for in time of war let us resolve that it is truly worth living for in time of peace.”
Or Henry Cabot Lodge, recited by another, “It is the flag just as much of the man who was naturalized yesterday as of the men whose people have been here many generations.”
The spectacle ended as students formed the left corner of the flag with silver stars.
Heidi Cline McKerley, a teacher who was one of the main organizers of the event, said that the flag presentation is a springboard for kids to perform public speaking and learn some of the fundamentals of the stage.
A teachable moment – and with meaningful twist.
“That sense of appreciation and patriotism is perhaps something that ebbs and flows. What we’re trying to say is that there isn’t that ebb and flow,” said Cline McKerley, whose father worked as a civilian at Ft. Eglin Air Force Base as a high-level mechanical engineer. “It’s about discipline and not taking things for granted. We don’t want our kids to see a veteran and look the other way.
“We are creating a personal connection here. I think that’s a much more explosive educational experience.”