Barbara Lawlor, Gilpin County. On Thursday, November 10, 2016, the students of Gilpin County schools sang songs, recited poems and danced for about 35 veterans who attended the traditional Veteran’s Day celebration at the school. The veterans, some in jean jackets with patches, some in uniforms and some in suits, sat back and let the patriotic accolades flow over them, appreciating the words of praise and especially, the thank yous. They had served in all branches of the military and in countries all over the world.
The one thing they had in common was their loyalty to their country and their peers, their brothers in arms. Although these men and women now live in peace in the US, the country they fought for, they all share the knowledge of the horror of war.
Not all veterans had a warm reception after completing their tour in Vietnam, or even Desert Storm. They experienced the horrors of combat, the isolation and the loneliness of being away from family. They lost friends and sometimes they lost a sense of what they were doing and why, but they did it anyway, for their country.
While the audience settled down and the veterans found their seats, the Gilpin County Middle School Band played a medley of patriotic songs. Abraham Lincoln High School ROTC members, Brigade Command Sergeant Major Kaitlyn Rodriguez, Battalion Command Sergeant Major Crystal Galvan, Second Lieutenant Ricardo Felix and Sergeant Maria Aguilar presented the colors as the veterans saluted. The POW/MIA flag was placed on an empty chair at the front of the gym.
Gilpin Girl Scout Troop 4565 and Cub Scout Pack 251 led the veterans and the audience in the Pledge of Allegiance followed by ninth grader Sarah Trujillo singing the Star Bangled banner.
Senior Rachel Schmalz introduced the rest of the performances including the Fifty Nifty United States, an alphabetical listing of all the states, sung increasingly faster as the energy level picks up. The Gilpin High School Cheerleaders danced to an “American Hero,” a moving performance that evoked a roar of applause from the veterans.
Each of the veterans was asked to stand and introduce themselves and say their rank and where they served. Proud and serious, they gave their information and thanked the students for caring enough to throw them a party.
Members of the Daughters of the American Revolution, Cheryl Lydyard and Kathleen Shrader, invited all of the Vietnam veterans to stand and be recognized. Each of them was presented a certificate thanking them for their service. Kathleen Shrader, a member of the DAR, said happy birthday to all the marines in the room. “We are here to give everyone a proper welcome home even if it is late.”
Then, after a moment of silence, GHS students Jake Duncan and Malachy Saeedi played Taps, one echoing the other in a hauntingly beautiful, but sorrowful, elegy.
Staff Sgt. Matthew S. McCracken, US Army, was the keynote speaker who joined the army when he was 17, a decision he made after 9/11. He realized that many families were afraid of what the future held after the horrific event. He pointed out the flag, which was made decades ago, each star representing a Gilpin veteran or a member of his or her family. He asked the audience to make a noise, to clap, to raise the ceiling with applause, to acknowledge what these veterans had done for each and every one of them.
“Veterans of every era enlisted in 1941, and in their time of service, the formed bonds that lasted a lifetime, sharing the qualities of discipline, commitment, loyalty, and the responsibility of fighting for a free world.”
The vets held the microphone and spoke from their heart, “You don’t know how much this ceremony means to us Vets.”
“We all left after high school to join a brand new family.”
“I joined the Navy because my grandparents came over here. You don’t know what a blessing you have to have been born here”
A Marine took the microphone and said, “I joined the marines when I was 16 and became a recon sniper. I learned a lot when I was in the service, especially the fact that once you are a Marine, you are always a Marine. I was supposed to compete in the Olympics in Russia, in the shooting event. At that time I was a Seal, and there are aren’t a handful of people that can do it, especially in pot growing Colorado.”
One of the veterans pleaded with the audience to support the veterans who have returned home. “Over 2,000 veterans a year die by suicide.”
“We didn’t receive a reception like this when we came back from Vietnam. This is the best… thank you ever so much.”
The only female veteran in the group to speak said, “I would do it all over again in a heartbeat.”
After the veterans spoke, a group of children approached them and handed out letters to each of the vets.
One of them was a letter from a young girl who wrote, “Dear Veteran, I am grateful you have served in the military. I hope you are safe and see your family a lot. My name is Brogan and one of my favorite hobbies is basketball, football and baseball.
One of my family’s members is Gary Thomas, who served in World War II and he drove a Jeep. I know how hard it is to serve in the military. My dad told me a story from his dad and I am grateful that you gave us freedom.”
(Published in the November 17, 2016 print edition of The Mountain-Ear.)