Students at Woodland Middle School want the veterans in the community to know that their service and sacrifice is remembered and appreciated.
The Euharlee school had its inaugural Veterans Day Ceremony Friday morning to honor the nation’s men and women who have given all they have to their country.
“We have a school climate that is very patriotic,” said Dr. Cindy Schwartz, who teaches sixth-grade English language arts. “In light of media reports about the current state of our society, we decided to celebrate Veterans Day by showing our pride in America and honoring our veterans.”
A larger-than-expected group of veterans — some in wheelchairs, others with canes — gathered for a hospitality breakfast, hosted by 23 staff members, before filing into the school gym, filled with standing, applauding students.
“Veterans faithfully defended our freedom,” Principal Michael Blankenship said. “Some of them have made great sacrifices, the ultimate sacrifice, on behalf of our freedom. We don’t say it often enough, but today we say ‘thank you.’ These words are not nearly enough, but it’s a start. Thank you for your service. Thank you for defending our freedom. Thank you for giving us the right to be here today to honor you. This is the first time we’ve done this here at Woodland Middle School. We hope to do it many more years.”
Before the guest speaker came to the podium, a folk trio from White and the eighth-grade band and chorus provided patriotic music; the Etowah Valley Young Marines presented and later retired the colors; and the winners of the language arts department’s “What a Veteran Means to Me” essay contest — Trinity Brooks, sixth grade; Hiromy Ortiz, seventh grade; and Gracie Lanham, eighth grade — read their essays and received $15 iTunes gift cards from Carl Boyd American Legion Post 42 Commander Glen Thompson.
Schwartz introduced the speaker as “someone very special to me” — her husband, retired Master-at-Arms Senior Chief Michael Schwartz of the U.S. Navy.
“We had several suggestions for a guest speaker, but in the 11th hour, our leads came up dry, so I asked my husband to once again be my hero and save the day,” she said.
Schwartz — who was stationed all over the Southeast as well as Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, twice and Newfoundland, Canada, and was aboard the USS Brumby — gave students the Wikipedia definition of a veteran, “any person who has served or is serving in the armed forces,” and discussed what is and isn’t included in the oath that all members of the military are required to take when they enlist or re-enlist.
“I think a veteran is someone who has raised their hand and swore an oath, this oath: ‘I, Michael Schwartz, do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; and that I will obey the orders of the president of the United States and of all officers appointed over me, according to regulations and the Uniform Code of Military Justice. So help me God.’ I said that oath five times during my career.”
But a lot of sacrifices weren’t spelled out in the oath Schwartz took — having to leave his new bride after only three months of marriage, being away from her for long periods of time, missing 20 Christmases with family as well as birthdays and anniversaries and moving on a moment’s notice.
“I left that foreign command [in Canada], left my wife sitting on an island in the North Atlantic by herself, and she never complained once, and I knew that that was what I was sworn to do, that I will obey the orders of the people over me, and they told me ‘You’re going to Cuba,’” he said.
For soldiers and Marines, eating cold food out of a bag while “just dreaming about a hot meal or an ice cream cone” isn’t in the oath, he said.
“And in some cases, for some of the men sitting here in this room today, it is watching their friends being shot, wounded or even killed right in front of them,” he said. “Can you imagine that, your best friend right next to you, and the next minute, they’re gone? That’s what these men and women signed up for.”
So, the obvious question is, why would anyone volunteer for that life?
“I’ll tell you why,” Schwartz said. “Because they love this country, and they love the people who live in this country. They love you, though they’ve never met you. You’re an American, and they love you. They love the freedoms that this country promises to each citizen. They did it because they have honor, courage and commitment.”
Schwartz also said the superheroes in comic books and movies are not the real heroes.
“You know what a hero looks like to me?” he said. “These men and women who have raised their hand and swore to defend this country. They’re the real heroes, folks, not the people in the movies. We’re very proud of the veterans that are here today, and we are proud to be veterans of the United States military service.”
To conclude the program, the 14 students who entered the essay contest presented the Woodland Family of Veterans — banners listing more than 185 names of students’ family members who are or were in the military.
Dr. Cindy Schwartz was extremely pleased with the success of the program and said the students were “as quiet as I’ve ever seen them.”
“The students were very respectful,” she said, noting the band and chorus were “phenomenal.” “They were so mesmerized, really, but mostly very respectful. I think they really appreciated the veterans, and I thought it was very obvious that all of our students were proud of those who serve our country.”
Veterans also were impressed by the program.
Lead special education teacher Stacey Evans, who was a specialist in the U.S. Army Reserves from 1988 to 1992 and was called to Desert Storm in 1990, said she thought it was a “wonderful and sincere gesture to honor past and present veterans.”
“The enthusiasm shown by all in attendance touched my heart,” the Paulding County resident, 47, said. “I believe that it was good for our students to have also witnessed the tribute to those who serve so they realize the sacrifice our military members make. In the 19 years I have worked at Woodland Middle, I have never felt this honored.”
Kingston resident Joseph Kimbell, who was in the Army from 2009 to 2015 until he medically retired, also felt very honored.
“It’s the first time since I’ve been back in Georgia that I’ve seen anybody do this,” said the 40-year-old veteran, who served two combat tours in Afghanistan. “It was incredible. Had us all in tears.”
Calling the program “fantastic,” Miles Tanner, 70, of Euharlee, may have appreciated the tribute more than most veterans, as he served in Vietnam from 1966 to 1970.
“When we all came back, you know, we got booed,” the Marine Corps veteran said, choking up momentarily. “This is different.”