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Little students, big welcome: Elementary students honor veterans' service 
By Army National Guard Capt. Michael Odgers, 100th Missile Defense Brigade (Ground-based Midcourse Defense) Public Affairs 

AURORA, Colo. (11/8/12) --  More than a hundred veterans of all ages and every branch of service were treated like all-stars as they squeezed through a gauntlet of young students Mission Viejo Elementary School in Aurora, Colo., Nov. 8.

High-fives and applause were ubiquitous as the veterans entered the gym and took their seats at center stage.

“The reception was awesome," said Air Force 1st Lt. Brian Thorn, of the 460th Operational Support Squadron on Buckley Air Force Base in Aurora, Colo. “I was honored, and quite frankly, overwhelmed by the reception we received as we entered the gym.”

The celebration, its sixth annual, brought in veterans from all over Colorado to honor their service and teach children about the sacrifices American men and women in uniform make in service to the country.

The ceremony began with a color guard of Korean War veterans posting the colors in front of a bald eagle on the arm of its handler. Whether trained to do so on cue -- or simply stretching its muscles -- the eagle spread its wings in response to the national anthem, which earned applause from the crowd.

Then Sandy Roberts, the planner, organizer and master of ceremonies, read a story about Robert Cooper, a veteran of World War II who lied about his age to enlist into the U.S. Marine Corps. Cooper fought the Japanese on Wake Island and spent several years as a prisoner of war. The story was written by Barb Wilson, now a third-grade teacher at Mission Viejo, when she was in fifth grade. Wilson then accepted a cased flag that flew over the U.S.S. Arizona Memorial in Honolulu in honor of her father’s service.

Roberts then called three students, who currently have a parent serving abroad, to the stage.  She asked them about their parents' service, where they were serving, when they last saw them, and presented each a military challenge coin. Roberts then expressed to them how much the faculty and their fellow students support the sacrifice both they and their parents are making.

However, when Roberts reached into her pocket to present a challenge coin to one child, who hadn’t seen her father since Christmas 2011, she had no coin.

"You know how every year, I screw something up?" asked Roberts. "I forgot Christina's coin. Can someone please go get Christina's coin for me?"

But instead of a returning with a coin, Roberts' helpers returned with the child's father, a Sailor in the U.S. Navy.

Next, the school choir sang each service's song, and in turn, each veteran stood for his or her service.  

"I couldn't sing my service song," one veteran remarked. "My throat choked up listening to these patriotic kids sing."

The ceremony concluded with the school's choir and Barb Whitfield singing "I pledge my allegiance."

“It’s like a second birthday for veterans,” said Brandon Williams, a fifth grader. "They earned it and they deserve it. They have given their lives for our country and worked hard to make our country free, they deserve to be honored."

While he thought the eagle was a great part of the ceremony, he really enjoyed the singing of the service songs and "I pledge my allegiance."

“This was such a great event,” exclaimed Army Spc. Joshua Oberg, a medic home on leave from Fort Wainwright, Alaska. “I hope this event continues. I enjoyed it so much, I plan to take leave to attend again next year.”

After the reception, the students returned to their classrooms with two or three veterans who would answer the students' questions.

“They did such an excellent job this year,” said Staff Sgt. Daniel Padilla, a Colorado Army National Guardsman from 2nd Battalion, 135th General Support Aviation at Buckley Air Force Base. “I really enjoyed hearing their questions, sharing our stories and getting to see their perspective through a younger set of eyes.”

This was the second year Padilla attended the event but the first time that he was able to speak at his daughter’s class.

Roberts feels that the public doesn’t understand what military life is like for those who serve and the families who support them, therefore she started going to schools to show them his uniform items and equipment and to talk to students about military service. Little by little, it has grown into what it is today.

“This was the best of all six,” said Williams, who's attended the school's annual Veterans Day events since he was a kindergartener.

Roberts' passion has been rewarded by the veterans who return each year and the accolades she's received from the school district.

"We are just so proud to have this celebration be such a huge part of our school," she said. "We're going to keep doing it and keep doing it. We want (veterans) to know they have family here and we support them. We're here for them.”

Cherry Creek School District has been celebrating Veterans Day as a district for two years. With the proximity of Buckley Air Force Base in Aurora, Colo., and a large retired community, a large number of veterans have come to events to be honored. More than 2,000 veterans and family members attended district events last year alone.

"It provides the great opportunity for our students to interact with our veterans, hear their stories, and to learn about and understand the sacrifices they have made for our nation,” said Tustin Amole, director of communications for the Cherry Creek School District.

Amole said she has received overwhelming support from the community and the veterans. Most of the reactions to those who attended were full of admiration -- and even some tears.

A family member was moved by a young student who interrupted a 94-year-old World War II veteran telling stories, to tell him he was his hero.

A tearful Vietnam veteran remarked that this was the first time he'd been honored for his service.

“Veterans Day is important," said Megan Apodaca, a fifth grader. “It's when we honor our veterans who've served in our military and made our country free.”