Remembering their sacrifices for freedom

Winters Mill High students honor 300 veterans at fourth annual breakfast, ceremony program


With the strains of the anthems of the Army, Navy, Marines, Coast Guard and Air Force filling the room, hundreds of students and faculty members at Winters Mill High rose to their feet and offered a steady stream of grateful applause to the nearly 300 war veterans who had gathered for a day of remembrance.

Among them stood men and women who had served in conflicts stretching back to World War II.

There was 92-year-old Henry Singer, who served in the Navy from 1934 to 1945.

Standing beside him was his friend, fellow Navy man Charles Swiderman, 85, who clutched a framed painting of the USS Santee, the carrier on which he served from 1942 to 1945.

Singer had come to the event with his neighbor - schools Superintendent Charles I. Ecker, who joined the Navy in 1945, two days after his 18th birthday.

As he soaked up the atmosphere, Singer said he couldn't help but get emotional about the tribute and the memories that such days bring back.

"I'm so grateful, but I'm also crying for my nation," he said as he thought about today's soldiers at war in Iraq. "It chokes me up."

Accompanied by their families, the servicemen and women were being honored with a Veterans Day breakfast and an assembly Friday at the high school in Westminster. This was the fourth year that Winters Mill students have coordinated the tribute.

"In our history classes, we are expected to learn a seemingly endless list of dates," Monica Zaleski, an 11th-grader, said during a segment of the program that paid tribute to fallen soldiers. "But it's not so much the dates [that matter] as it is the people who served. Don't forget those who served."

To honor the memories of the more than 2,000 servicemen and women who have died fighting the war in Iraq as well as in the conflict in Afghanistan, 20 Junior ROTC cadets - each holding an empty vase adorned with red, white and blue ribbons - made a solemn march to the front of the gymnasium.

Each vase represented about 100 "American heroes," Zaleski told the audience.

With the cadets in formation and the school's chorus singing "Amazing Grace," a group of students filed toward them, placing a single red rose in each vase.

With each vase filled, taps was played as veterans across the room stood at attention and saluted.

"We honor our veterans today simply because it's the right thing to do," Alexander Goge, an 11th-grader, said during a portion of the program titled "What We Remember." "These veterans know in their hearts that freedom is never free."

Caralyn Welliver, a 12th-grader, said that as chairwoman of the program, she had dedicated months of preparation, motivated by her drive to honor the men and women who have served in the military.

"I'm a big history buff," she said. "It really is a passion of mine to thank the veterans because they're so important. We can't have our freedom unless we fight for it."

Hal Camlin, who served in the Marines for nearly 40 years before retiring in 1989, and his wife, Mary, who served in the Navy from 1953 to 1954, came from their home in Littlestown, Pa., to attend the program because their grandchildren are students at Winters Mill.

As they talked to students in the hallway after the program, Hal Camlin reflected on how much attitudes toward the military had changed - for the better - since the charged days of the Vietnam War.

"It's mind-boggling to me," he said.

But students, especially those among the more than 100 who have chosen to join the school's ROTC program, said it was their honor to celebrate the veterans' service.

"It's wonderful to have the veterans come out so we can properly thank them," said Tatiana Kish, an 11th-grader, who is the ROTC program's battalion commander and whose father is a Navy chaplain. "This is just a wonderful source of inspiration for us."

Hillard R. Fritz, 75, who served in the Air Force from 1948 to 1968, said the students' tribute was touching.

"It brings tears to my eyes," said Fritz, who attended the ceremony with his grandson, Erick R. Fritz, a senior at Winters Mill. "This is very emotional."

Erick said the program made him even more grateful that his grandfather survived his years of service.

"With all the people who are losing their lives in Iraq, it makes me glad he's not over there now," Erick Fritz said.

For Darryl Emanus of Taneytown, who joined the Army nearly 27 years ago, the tribute was a welcome sign of appreciation - especially as he waits for two nephews to return home safely from service in Iraq.

"This shows to me that America still cares," said Emanus, 45, who has been in the Army National Guard since retiring from the Army about 13 years ago. "Programs like this prove that the young people have not forgotten about those who have served. I'm not speaking about myself so much as the older veterans. It's important that we never forget their service."

In a closing tribute, the students projected a series of thank-you messages onto a screen, acknowledging the veterans' sacrifice, bravery and commitment.

The final note of appreciation that flashed across the screen stated simply:

"For you - we are thankful."

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