Several years ago, I was standing in the hallway at West Grand High School in Kremmling, Colorado. We were having a Veteran’s Day celebration and many of our local veterans joined us for the evening. I noticed several of the veterans had gathered near the auditorium and were looking at a display. The high school had posted the pictures of every graduating class since the opening of school. It was a very unique display. Each graduating class was placed on a large 3-foot by 6-foot poster which had been laminated and attached to the wall. Each poster was hinged so visitors could flip through each graduating class going back to the 1930s.
I began talking with several of the veterans, and they were eager to show me their graduating pictures. In many of these cases, it was sometimes difficult to equate the young men on the graduation posters with the more senior versions of them. However, it was still easy to see the strength and character residing within those individuals. It was a wonderful evening as we recognized and celebrated their service to our nation.
After the celebration was over, I was alone in the school and began to close down the building. My thoughts returned to the posters, and I began to flip through the graduating classes. It was neat to see some of the recent graduates because I knew the vast majority of the students. It was good to see those faces again as I had many positive interactions with those students. I found myself going back further into the past and eventually stopped on the graduating class of 1942. There were a number of things that came into my mind at that time. First, there were a few young men listed on that poster who were also listed on our fallen veteran’s memorial that was constructed outside of the high school. These young men were called to serve their nation and did so without hesitation. These young men never returned home. They were buried overseas in a small plot of the very land they had fought for to ensure others had the right to remain free. It was difficult not to think at that moment what those young men could have been if their lives were not ended so quickly.
The second thing that caught my attention were the actual pictures. I flipped from the graduating class of 1942 to 1982 which was the year that I graduated. I did not graduate from that school, but many of the students were very similar to my graduating class. There seemed to be a huge difference between those two graduating classes. The students of 1942 seemed to already be grown men and women. They possessed a maturity and sense of responsibility that simply was not present in the 1982 era of students in which I graduated. They seemed to have more focus, direction, and maturity. I tried to imagine my graduating class being unloaded on the beaches of Normandy, fighting for each inch of ground on Iwo Jima, struggling in the subzero weather at the Chosin Reservoir, climbing up the steep terrain at Hamburger Hill under heavy fire, enduring the constant threats of the Gulf Wars, or walking into harm’s way in countless other places where young men and women fought to protect this nation.
It hurt me a little to think that my graduating class may not have been up to that challenge. I wonder how we would have done if we were on those landing crafts which unloaded on D-Day. I hope that we would have had the courage, strength, and dedication to fulfill our duty in keeping our nation and families safe. I could easily see that type of character and resolve in that 1942 graduating class, and it was easy to see why they were called our nation’s greatest generation. These young men and women were called upon to protect the entire freedom of the world from tyranny and they answered that call without hesitation or reservation. There was a need in the world and they loaded on ships, planes, and trains to answer the call of service. They fought to protect those who were defenseless and defended concepts many of us have simply taken for granted. Families at home worked countless hours to ensure the members of our armed forces were fed and supplied. Factories worked relentless hours to produce goods and equipment. Families were forced to endure shortages of gas, food, and other services to ensure those overseas had what they needed. Everyone gave so much to the effort.
After the war, these men and women returned back home. Many would think that their service to this country should have ended when this generation returned home. However, they still maintained their spirit of giving and service to others. Their nation again called upon them again to build schools, libraries, hospitals, and other important civic buildings. Actually, many of our children across this nation still attend schools which were built by this generation. It seemed as if there was no challenge or obstacle too great or small for this generation. Their degree for personal sacrifice to ensure the safety and comfort of others knew no limits. These individuals lived an entire life of service to others. They knew the meaning of planting a tree in which they would never enjoy the fruits or shade of that tree. It was simply the right thing to do.
The words for this article came to me for two primary reasons. First, it is appropriate and necessary to recognize and celebrate all of those individuals who have served this nation. We should never take for granted the freedom which has been purchased for us by the countless sacrifice of millions of individuals who have served in our armed forces. We should never forget that over a million Americans have died in conflicts over the years since we created this nation. Many who died overseas have only asked for a small piece of ground to rest in return for their service. We should thank veterans every single day for what they have given us and not focus our attention on them for one day out of the year. They provide us with the blanket of protection and freedom we wrap up in every evening with little thought about the cost of that protection. Let us honor and recognize those who have given so much.
The second thought was a comparison to our current situation. I often find myself complaining about the additional workload created by the virus, the inability to travel, the necessity of preventing social gatherings, wearing of a mask, and the ton of other inconveniences and interruptions to my daily life. It seems that many of us are feeling the same way this year. I have heard several comment that 2020 has been a horrible year. Without question, this has been a challenging year. Many within our community have lost family members, and indeed, the struggle has been real. There is pain and suffering associated with this virus, and it cannot be diminished.
Many of us have used words such as inconvenienced, frustrated, aggravated, and struggle when referring to the virus. However, when I think of the sacrifice of our veterans, I wonder if we should be lamenting about the inconveniences created by the virus. Enduring the bitter cold and facing overwhelming enemy forces in the Ardennes Forest was an inconvenience. Leaving your family, before you turned 20, to walk point through the jungles of Southeast Asia was a struggle. Avoiding sniper fire and IEDs during the Battle of Falluja was an aggravation. Wearing a mask, not being able to dine out, not being able to go to the movies, not be able to attend sporting events, etc. do not seem to be a major issue when compared to what past generations endured.
Future generations will reflect back on us as we have done with the incredible accomplishments of the greatest generation. I wonder how our children and grandchildren will judge our actions. Will they think we made good decisions and made the necessary sacrifices to protect those around us? Did we take the necessary action to keep our community safe and protect those we love? Or will the next generation see that we were we more focused on satisfying our own personal needs and desires without really thinking of the negative consequences our actions could have on others.
Anne Frank wrote, “How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.” A young teenager who suffered through unimaginable conditions still had her focus on improving this world. We can certainly learn from the sacrifices of our veterans and those who struggled to make this a better world for us. Perhaps it is now our time to shoulder that mantle of responsibility and make the necessary sacrifices to ensure the safety of others. Many in our community have really stood up during this pandemic and dedicated their lives to helping others. There are countless examples of those who have placed their own needs behind them to ensure the needs of others were met. Without question, others will reflect back on our actions. This will either inspire future generations to do extraordinary things or simply accept their actions will have little impact on the world.
During this Veteran’s Day week, let us express our appreciation to those who have served and let us be more dedicated to a life of service to others. Let us be more diligent in our efforts to protect those around us and be that energy source to lift up others as the virus wears them down. Most want to create their legacy during the last few days of their life by being a caring, thoughtful, and giving person. However, this is not how a legacy is developed. It is a culmination of a person’s life and is constituted around everything they have done during the span between birth and death. It has often been said that the hyphen between your date of birth and death on your gravestone is the most important part of your life. This hyphen is our legacy. Let us leave a legacy of service to others so that our life inspires others to do great things. Thanks for your attention to this article and remember, School Matters!
-Dr. Jeff Perry is the superintendent of Hamblen County schools.