Men and women who served our country in times of war and peace were honored Wednesday, on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month as Veterans Day was observed in Elgin.
Nearly every folding chair was occupied, and bleachers on both sides of the gymnasium held students from Elgin’s three schools as an hour-long salute to veterans was held at the Elgin Public Schools gymnasium.
Veterans of armed conflict dating back to World War II marched in behind our nation’s flag. Once seated, they were treated to patriotic music, special readings and inspirational words from guest speaker Mike Flood of Norfolk.
“Armed Forces On Parade” was performed by band members, following a welcome by EHS senior Alois Warner. “I am honored to gather,” he said, “to pay special tribute to the men and women who served during times of peace and war.” Later in the program, the combined choir of the schools performed “One Great Nation.”
PJCC senior Lexie Heithoff read a letter written by Army 1st Sergeant Clarence Schmitt to his parents, Mr. and Mrs. Theo Schmitt, just days after V-E Day during World War II. The letter told about the Army’s march across Europe into Germany. In Germany, he said, “We are allowed to attend a Catholic Mass in a German church, but must stay on a certain side, etc. Today we were at church and a very old priest had Solemn High Mass and preached in German … The people in this area are very religious. Lots of nuns and priests and very fine churches. I saw lots of churches and buildings that had been bombed.”
“I’ll write more next time. I’m just fine, only missing you all so much. Hope all this mess ends soon.” Heithoff read at the end of the letter.
EHS senior Dylan Widger then read a poem about how freedom isn’t free …. Here’s an excerpt of the poem Widger read:
I heard the sound of taps one night,
When everything was still
I listened to the bugler play
And felt a sudden chill
I wondered just how many times
That taps had meant “Amen”
When a flag had draped a coffin
Of a brother or a friend
I thought of all the children,
Of the mothers and the wives,
Of fathers, sons and husbands
With interrupted lives
I thought about a graveyard
at the bottom of the sea
Of unmarked graves in Arlington.
No, Freedom isn’t free!
PJCC senior Scott Moser read from an account of life on the U.S.S. Yorktown narrated by Harold McKay and published in The Elgin Review in 1945. In the letter he sent home, McKay spoke of battles he and other soldiers experienced first hand, the hardships endured on the road to victory in the Pacific. “No one was nervous,” McKay said, “As this wasn’t the first time that we were under attack … At a later date I’ll be able to tell you more about some of our later experiences. Some of them would make the hair rise from a bald head. In every one of these battles I’ve gotten by without a scratch and feel very fortunate,” Moser read of McKay’s account.
Guest speaker for the event was radio/TV station owner and former state senator Mike Flood of Norfolk. The former speaker of the unicameral, Flood directed most of his remarks to the students in the audience, noting how most of them have grown up at a time when our nation has been at war. His remarks focused on how Americans have been given a “choice” and how they have responded.
Recognizing Wilfred “Red” Arehart, the lone World War II veteran attending the program, he pointed out how “Red” served. “He did it (served his country) because that was what you do.” World War II was a popular war, the same couldn’t be said for the Vietnam War, Flood noted. “Do you think they chose? It was what you did,” he said about being drafted into the military.
He then shared a personal moment. As tears began to form in his eyes, he spoke about the hardships endured by wives and mothers whose sons and daughters are serving now in Afghanistan and Iraq, how they don’t know whether or not they are in harms way. “It wasn’t fair,” he said about soldiers being called to serve. They may have had other plans, other dreams, but they chose to serve their country.
“When they come home, they come home having seen things that we can’t understand,” he said. And, then, he said at another meeting he heard from a parent who complained about their child right’s and not receiving a proper hearing before being removed from school, noting the contrast between the parents.
“It’s about choices,” Flood said. Comparing Arehart to students today, Flood said to the students in the gym, “Think about what you’re thinking about. Red wanted every one of those things too. But our president said ‘we need you’ … The soldier. that’s a choice. It’s about choices, they didn’t ask about their rights, about having a hearing, they just did it.”
Taps was then performed by Allyson Wemhoff and Kaitlyn Polk, before the “Colors” were retired by the American Legion and VFW as the veterans marched out of the gymnasium one more time