A week before Veteran’s Day, students at I.S. 259, William McKinley Intermediate School, thronged the school auditorium to pay homage to those who put their lives on the line for this country.
The school’s annual Veteran’s Day celebration, held on Friday, November 4, saw students waving American flags in the auditorium as the veterans – who represented many eras in the country’s history from World War II to Operation Desert – watched from the stage.
“It’s very important that we teach our youth about these important days,” said McKinley Principal Janice Geary.
Some of the students, all of whom were enrolled in Jessica Amato’s seventh grade English Language Arts classes, also worked to prepare a video which strove to depict student appreciation of the sacrifices made by American veterans, by focusing on students in the school who had or have a family member in the military.
These included eighth grader Taz McBean, whose mom is serving overseas. “She’s always been the bravest, toughest, strongest one in the family,” McBean told the crowd in the auditorium. “I love my mother and I worry she might not come back but as long as she’s fighting for us, I’ll be all right.”
Amato, who emceed the event, is the organizer behind it. She kick-started the program, she said, when a student asked the question, “What is a veteran?” Her goal is to raise awareness, she said, stressing, “Understanding how people protect our freedoms and defend us is more important than knowing where to put a comma. We need to keep sight of that. They don’t teach it in textbooks.”
Speakers included both veterans and elected officials.
“I have lived the American dream to the fullest and for that reason, I am proud to have given America two of the best years of my life,” said Joe Seminara, who was born in Italy and fought for the United States in World War II. “I would do it any time.”
Danny Friedman, who served during the Vietnam War, said he didn’t know much about what was going on there before he was drafted in the 1960s, even though his uncles served there. Members of the military, he emphasized, “Don’t brag about their service. You do what you have to do and get on with your life.”
For Barry Berger, who fought in Korea, one of the enduring memories was of the bond between those who served together. “You make friends for life in the service,” he told the youngsters. “They’re your family. You make a lifetime commitment to your buddies and when you lose someone, it’s very hard.”
Actor J.W. Cortes, who appears in “Gotham,” and whose niece attends McKinley, said he had an “epiphany” during his Marine Corps service, which lasted 13 years and included time in Iraq. “As the SCUD missiles fell, I thought it was over, and I knew if I made it out of Iraq, I would pursue my lifelong dream,” of becoming an actor, he said.
“I have been given a second chance at life,” he told the crowd.
While veterans from World War II are known as the “greatest generation,” noted Ray Aalbue, a Vietnam era veteran, whenever they served, those who were in the U.S. military deserve that title. “They’re all the greatest generation,” he told the students.
It was particularly difficult, he added, for Vietnam vets, “Because the country actually turned its back on them. Because of that,” he went on, “they’re leading the way” to ensure that today’s veterans are given what they need. “We’re here today, here to say, ‘Welcome home.’”
That message was echoed by the elected officials who took the mike.
“We need people to stand up for us and make sure our freedoms are protected,” noted City Councilmember Vincent Gentile, “and veterans have done that over and over again.”
His colleague, Councilmember Mark Treyger, agreed. “Celebrating this day really means we should celebrate this day, these people and this issue every day.”