Every year my children’s elementary school presents a Veterans’ Day program. Every year I go. And every year it makes me cry.
To celebrate and honor our veterans, the students make posters that are displayed in the hallways and cafeteria. They invite their relatives and close friends who have served, or are actively serving, for a special breakfast reception (donuts and juice, really, but what’s better than donuts for elementary school kids?). After the reception, the school and their guests all go outside to the flagpole for the raising of the flag and Pledge of Allegiance. Then, everyone makes their way into the gymnasium for songs and speeches.
This year, I started crying even as I walked up to the school. I don’t go to the breakfast since I’m not a veteran, so I got there in time for the flag-raising. As I approached the building, the students began filing out and lining up around the flagpole. I waited alongside the building while the kids were organized and I chatted with a couple of the veterans (one, a good friend and the father of my son’s best friend).
A hush fell over the crowd, as the flag was presented and raised. The deafening silence of hundreds of young children gets me every time. Thank you, children, for understanding how to show respect, even though so many of you are too young to understand what it really means, or why that respect is so richly deserved. Next, the Pledge of Allegiance made me smile, as it always does, with the off-sync chorus of young voices.
Then there was the gun salute and playing of Taps. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to make it through that part without crying. It reminds me of my grandfather’s funeral. And I start thinking about all the other military funerals – those that weren’t for grandfathers, but for the men and women who sacrificed so much more. I think about the lives that ended on the battlefield, or as a result of physical and emotional wounds that never healed. I think about all those whose lives were spared, but who continue to work through the damage and the pain. I will never know their sacrifice, and my tears are a humble and insignificant tribute to all they have given.
Once inside the gym, all the students sat on the floor by grade – kindergarten and first grade were wearing red shirts, second and third with white, and fourth and fifth in blue. In front of them were three rows of chairs reserved for the veterans, the guests of honor. The first song on the program was our national anthem, sung by 350 children – it’s better than any professional at any sporting event, I promise you this. And it made me cry again.
Following the anthem, the veterans were asked to introduce themselves, their branch of military and service, and the student(s) with whom they’re attending. Grandparents, parents, aunts, uncles, and cousins all stood up and proudly stated their service – some for a year or two, others for a decade or more. When they said their students’ names, the kids stood up and (as intended) it connected all of us in the room. This part always makes me cry, too. I’m struck by the variety of service – all branches of military and various wars from our history. I’m moved by the pride in both the veterans’ faces and their related students as they stand in honor of their guests. I think about my dad and how wonderful it would be for him to be there while my kids stand proudly in front of him, and I wish New Mexico wasn’t so far away.
The program had a couple more songs, a guest speaker who spoke of sacrifice (and made me cry more), and a group of fifth-graders who read their winning essays on what Veterans’ Day means to them. Last year, the principal had the impromptu idea to have the veterans line up so that the kids could shake their hands (or high-five them) as they exited the gym. This year, they did it again. Except that I noticed after the students had gone through the line, some of the parents and other adults who had attended were also shaking the hands of the veterans.
So with watery eyes, for the first time in my life, I thanked veterans I had never met. I’ve thanked vets before – but only people I knew. And most of those thanks have been delivered over the phone, through text or email, or on facebook. Until today, I’ve never shook the hand of a stranger, looked him in the eye, and said, “Thank you.”
It was more than I could have hoped for, yet it still wasn’t enough. All I said was, “Thank you,” when I should have said, “Thank you for your service, your time, your sacrifice, your willingness to give what I would not.” Again, I will never know their sacrifice, and my tears and my handshake and my words are a humble and insignificant tribute to all they have given.