Thursday, November 29, 2012

Celebrating Veterans

More than 120 U.S. military veterans from Spring Branch were honored by students and staff at Spring Forest Middle School on Nov. 12 at the school’s annual Veterans Day Celebration. This year’s campus gathering was one of the district’s biggest ever salutes to the men and women who have served to keep our nation protected and free.  Click here to see more photos from this event.

Spring Forest Middle students and PTA hosted a morning breakfast for veterans and their families. The breakfast was followed by a program and recognition of each veteran in the school gymnasium. Yearly event sponsor is Heritage Texas Properties on Memorial Drive.

Included among the many military honorees this year were several Spring Forest Middle staff members. They included the head band director Joshua Ritchie, who is a sergeant and a unit bugler in the Reserve 395th Army Band. Sgt. Ritchie led the student band and he also performed “Reveille” and “Taps” on his bugle during the recognition event.

“I still have to close my eyes when I play ‘Taps’ in front of veterans,” he says. “It’s an emotional song. You can’t play ‘Taps’ without thinking about the sacrifices that others have made.”

A graduate of Midwestern State University in Wichita Falls and Alabama’s Auburn University, Ritchie has taught and led the student band four years at Spring Forest Middle. For the Army Reserve Band, his unit fills for other Army bands across the nation. He believes that the military is undervalued among too many Americans as a career option for young people.

“The military as a whole is viewed as something of a fall-back position for students, as a place maybe for people who are not good enough in other areas. I think that the military should be viewed as a good, solid career option. All kids should be encouraged to think about the military as a career possibility,” he says. It paid for much of Ritchie’s higher education.

Also winning a huge student cheer at the Veterans Day event was social studies teacher Robert Fleming, a former Marine. He has taught at the middle school for four years, too.

“My family was military, but I think that I looked at Veterans Day as pretty much just another day before I was in a situation and setting like this,” he says. “To see so many veterans gathered all in one place puts this day in perspective for me.”

Several student speakers served as program hosts. They included Randall Royall, president of the Spring Forest Student Council; Anna Skelly, president of the National Junior Honor Society; Nicholas Karolys, Student Council vice president; Tam Vo, Honor Society vice president; and Bolin Mahaffey, the Honor Society secretary.

“We had our first Veterans Day program in 2001, just two months after the 9/11 tragedy. The first year, Spring Forest Middle honored approximately 40 veterans. Our program has steadily grown each year, and is now known as one of the premier Veterans Day events in the City of Houston,” Student Council Leader Royall said. “We want to thank our community, and especially our veterans, for enthusiastically attending each year.”

  Honor Society Vice President Tam Vo reminded students and veterans what America means to those who are seeking freedom and opportunity.

“I want to share a little of my life story with you,” she told the crowd. “My family moved here to America from Vietnam two years ago. When I came to the United States, I spoke very little English. I was sad to leave my extended family in Vietnam, but happy to be able to attend a good school here in Houston.

“To me, the United States represents freedom and hope and the opportunity to pursue your dreams. That’s the reason why my family came here – to have a better and brighter future. My personal dream is to one day become either a doctor or an engineer. I want to thank the veterans for all they have done to serve this country and provide this opportunity for me.”

School Principal Kaye Williams introduced SBISD Board of Trustees members Chris Vierra and Katherine Dawson, as well as other special guests including Executive Director of Secondary Schools Sofia Petrou.

Event keynote speaker this year was former U.S. Marine Capt. Daniel Priest, a graduate of Texas A&M University and a member of the Corps of Cadets.

Priest, who joined the Marines after 9/11, deployed three times to the western Pacific and to the Middle East where he led a combat platoon in Iraq. The Houston native received a Navy Commendation Medal and the Naval Achievement Medal.

He told students that the Marines gave him the chance to do “cool stuff” like ride in helicopters and carry machine guns, and much more.

“In the Marines, I had the chance to help people half way around the world live more safely,” he said. “I was able to meet and become best friends with some really great men from all across our country. It is an honor to serve the United States of America, our great country.”

In Iraq, he learned another lesson. “During training, I thought that I would learn about how different the Iraqi people were from us. I was wrong. This was a big lesson for me. Most of the people in this world are very much like us. Men want to go to work. Women cook for their families. Kids go to school and play soccer. They want to raise their families, worship their God, and most of them want to live in peace,” he told students and veterans.

“This was a very important lesson for me to learn. I learned that I must always treat people with respect and care about them – and find ways to help them. When we are good to people, they are usually good back to us. As Marines, we were able to make the lives of those Iraqi people safer. And because of that, they thanked us for how we were able to help them,” the former Marine said.

Noting that the Marines he served with have gone on to other careers, he told students to be focused and open about their future paths. Priest now works in medical device sales involving pain control.
“Most of my Marines set plans to go to college after they got out of the Marine Corps. They knew the importance of setting those goals in their life, and they were going to study hard so that they could reach their dreams. They set goals that were specific to make sure that their grades were strong,” he said.

“It may sound funny to y’all being here in school, but we were a bunch of boys over in a war zone, and we were talking about our favorite science classes and our history lessons, and remembering reading Shakespeare in high school,” he also said.

“No matter what you choose to do with your life, doing your best in school now is important to helping become the person you want to be,” he said. And it’s OK not to know what you want to be. “I didn’t at your age know until much later that I would be a Marine!”

The Veterans Day program at Spring Forest Middle was created by Jana Gwinn, who continues to be a planner and organizer.


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