Thanks for fighting for our country. And protecting our country, Mr. Lt. Fendley. And I think you’re very brave for fighting in the Army.
So reads the first of the two dozen letters I received today from Mrs. Fendley’s second grade class after my visit to talk about the meaning of Veteran’s Day. Mrs. Fendley, my son’s wife, is in her third year as a public school teacher, and she wanted her class to understand why we celebrate this day each year. I was all too happy to accept her invitation to come and talk to them.
I arrived at the school right as they were returning from lunch, carrying some of my trinkets – medals and memorabilia – and a few photos. I hoped I was prepared to explain to these second graders the significance of this day we set aside to honor all our veterans.
As I began, I held up the words to that great statement of our rights from the Declaration of Independence and asked for a student to volunteer to read it. A dozen hands shot up. I called on one of the students. I had to help him with a few words – self-evident, created, endowed, Creator, and unalienable - but otherwise he did great.
Next I translated this statement into language that second graders were more likely to understand.
It is easy to see that God gave us rights that can’t be taken away. They include the right to live, to be free, and to be happy.
"Veteran’s Day," I said, "is a time to say thank you to the men and women who have served in the military to protect us, our country, and these rights.”
Then I told them about my experience as a combat commander and showed them some of the memorabilia.
"This pin lets you know that I was an infantry officer. That’s what these crossed rifles represent. And this silver bar is my insignia of rank. It means that I was a first lieutenant. And this pin that says ‘Follow Me’ represents the infantry school at Fort Benning."
I showed them other pins and ribbons: the Vietnam Service Medal, Bronze Star Medal, and unit pins, plus one of my dogtags. Then I put my CIB under the projector lamp. As it showed up on the screen, the children let out a collective "ooh."
"This," I said, "is the most special pin I own. This is the Combat Infantryman’s Badge, which every infantry soldier receives for combat service."
And, of course, I had to show pictures. I didn’t have any that were taken out in the boonies, but I did have photos that I took after being reassigned to a fire support base in command of the battalion heavy mortar platoon. Among the pictures were a Chinook helicopter carrying supplies in a cargo net, a Huey loaded with supplies and a few soldiers, a photo of one of the 4.2” mortars being fired, and lots of shots of sandbagged bunkers. I also had a few that I had taken while seated in a Huey – again, after my redeployment to LZ Maude, our firebase.
This was followed by questions.
"How many weapons did you fire?" asked one of the boys.
"Well, let’s see. M14, M16, 45 caliber pistol, 50 caliber machine gun, M72 LAW, 40mm grenade launcher, M60 machine gun, 81mm mortar, 4.2” mortar. I think that’s everything." With every one I named his eyes grew wider.
"Did you go in helicopters?"
"Yes, in Hueys, Chinooks, Loaches, but mostly in Hueys. My platoon was carried by Hueys from the rear out into the mountains and dropped off there. Then a couple of weeks later they would come back and pick us up, returning us to the rear for a few days of cleanup. Then we’d pack up our rucksacks with food, ammo, and clean clothes, climb back onto the helicopters, and fly out to some other area in the mountains."
One of the girls asked, "Did anybody get hurt?"
"Yes. Some got hurt very badly, and some got killed. If you go to Washington DC you can see the names of over 58,000 young men and women who were killed in Vietnam. One of the names is a first cousin of mine who was in the Marines. Another is a dear friend from high school, and another is the name of my radio operator who was killed on my daughter’s third birthday."
Mrs. Fendley sensed that it was time to move on, so she asked the class to read the Veterans Day poem in their poetry book. Then we sang the first verse and chorus of America the Beautiful, followed by my quoting of the third stanza:
Oh beautiful, for heroes proved,
In liberating strife;
Who more than self their country loved,
And mercy more than life.
I ended my talk by suggesting three things they could do to honor veterans, not only on Veterans Day but any time they encountered one of us.
1. Be thankful. If you see someone in uniform, or wearing something that let’s you know he or she is a veteran, and your mom says it’s okay, tell them thank you for your service.
2. Be patriotic. Say the pledge of allegiance like you mean it. Stand tall and still when the flag passes by, with your hand over your heart. Stand tall and still until the last note of the Star Spangled Banner.
3. Be a good citizen. You honor those who fought for your rights and your liberty by following the rules, and obeying your teacher and your parents.
I hope I left them with a better understanding of Veterans Day. But I know that they left me feeling blessed by the book of letters they gave me. I’ve got to share a few more, edited and spell checked. These are second graders, after all.
Thank you for sacrificing for our country and keeping is safe. We are happy that you were fighting. You are brave and bold. We thank you for all you do. When you fight you are brave. You are a good person. And we hope you do not change. THANK YOU SO MUCH.
Thank you for sacrificing your life for our country. You are very brave to go in the Army. Thank you for fightiing for our rights.
It must be hard to do things to fight for the country. We thank you for doing that.