By SUE SUCHYTA
Sunday Times Newspapers
ALLEN PARK – Allen Park High School students invited veterans into classrooms Wednesday morning to share their stories, and honored them at two music-filled afternoon assemblies at Allen Park Center for the Arts.
English teacher Andrew C. Jackson said the program, which began 10 years ago, is a valuable opportunity for students to listen to and honor veterans and active military personnel.
“There is a war that started basically after (9/11) that really is still going on,” Jackson said. “Students and society doesn’t seem to understand that or know that, or their life isn’t affected by it too much. So we want to bring home the idea that our students have a responsibility to recognize those who have fought and died for us.”
Jackson said he wants students to understand that even military personnel who don’t serve in combat make enormous sacrifices in their personal lives to serve their country, as do their families.
He said a dozen or more veterans look forward to sharing their experiences with students in the classrooms each year on Veterans Day.
Noel Horvath, 16, of Allen Park, said some of the veterans’ stories are very touching.
“When they say that they have lost a friend, seeing that would be really terrible, and they still continue to fight for our country,” Horvath said.
Gretta Yurkunas, 16, of Allen Park, said she also is moved by the veterans’ visits and recollections.
“My grandpa was in the Army for 30 years, and he doesn’t really talk about it a lot, so it really gives you what really goes on there, that people don’t always want to talk about,” Yurkunas said, “like seeing one of your friends die, and how if affects people afterwards.”
Yurkunas said it is important for Americans to remember that without the veterans’ sacrifices, the country would not be what it is today.
“We would not have the freedoms we have now without them,” Yurkunas said.
Don Graham of Allen Park, who served in the Army in South Korea from 1964 to 1966, said he thinks it is important for high school students to understand why people serve in the military.
“We are here to offer the assurance of peace and freedom for this great United States of America,” Graham said. “What we are really trying to preserve, protect, and defend is the freedom and liberties that we enjoy here.”
Graham said most students don’t know how important conflict is to preserving and protecting the U.S. Constitution.
“America is, after all, just an idea,” Graham said. “We are still a very young nation. I don’t think they have that sense of history.”
Prior to the assembly, keynote speaker Sgt. 1st Class Heather Derringer of Allen Park, who has served in the U.S. Army since 1988, said students generally do not have a sense of the history experienced by veterans of World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and in the Middle East.
“I think they are disconnected from that, and what Allen Park does is phenomenal,” Derringer said. “They are teaching these students things that otherwise they would not understand. What they are reading in text books is real, and these are the people that made that happen.”
Derringer said she is filled with pride when she looks at the students gathered in the auditorium to honor the veterans.
“Unfortunately, not all of these veterans received that support when they returned from the conflict that they were in,” Derringer said. “So, for me, they are getting that opportunity now, and these kids are giving them that respect and honor that they deserved many years ago, and maybe they didn’t receive.”
APHS held two assemblies honoring veterans, at 12:40 p.m. and 1:40 p.m., in the Allen Park Center for the Arts auditorium, which is connected to the high school.
After veterans entered the auditorium, an honor guard posted the colors, and 2015 APHS graduate Mitchell Sturm of Taylor played “Reveille.”
Following the Pledge of Allegiance, the school choir sang “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
Student Madeline Watson read her Veterans of Foreign Wars “Voice of Democracy” essay entry for the 2015-16 contest, based on the theme, “My Vision for America.”
While expressing an optimistic viewpoint, Watson maintains that dark events should not be forgotten.
Watson cited the bravery of two unarmed U.S. Marines who disarmed a Moroccan terrorist on a train in France when he opened fire on passengers with an assault rifle in August.
“These veterans are just a couple of the artists fixing our country’s picture,” she read. “They were brave enough to stand up against terrorism. We need more people like them, who will willingly contribute to the great canvas of our country.”
A trio sang Tim McGraw’s “If You’re Reading This,” a tribute to the families of soldiers who have died, followed by a description of a student-designed commemorative plaque created for the veterans.
An explanation of the “missing man” table, displayed on stage, followed. Empty places, set for each branch of the service, show that those who died are not forgotten.
The full choir then sang “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”
Derringer’s keynote speech characterized Veterans Day as a time of tribute, reflection, and celebration.
“Veterans Day is a triumph of all who have served and kept us free, and continue to do so today,” Derringer said. “While this holiday was originally a remembrance of the silencing of the war’s cannons, the end of the ‘War to End All Wars’ did not silence them for long, and we have fought many since, so in the past 100 years, the scope of our observance has changed.”
Derringer urged students to think of the veterans who have fought, and those who continue to fight, for our freedoms when they say the Pledge of Allegiance.
The high school band then played the anthems for each branch of the service, while veterans rose when their music played.
The choir and band performed Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America,” followed by a gun salute, and “Taps” played by Sturm while the honor guard retired the colors.
Derringer said what Allen Park does annually to remember veterans is wonderful.
“They do it better than anybody I know Downriver, and I speak, I believe, for all these veterans,” Derringer said. “It means more than they will ever know.”