A West Virginia school honors veterans past and present

November 11, 2006|by BOB MAGINNIS

It will be a while before Linda Koontz can hug her granddaughter again, so on Thursday morning in the lobby of Spring Mills Middle School in Martinsburg, W.Va., she clung tight to a framed picture of Holly Koontz-Clough.

Her granddaughter isn't away at college. At age 19, she's off to war, stationed in Kuwait for 30 days before her grandparents say she'll be transferred to Baghdad.

Asked for her reaction to the news that her granddaughter had enlisted, Koontz said, "I cried for two months after she called me up and said 'Granny, guess what I did.'"

The Williamsport-area teen, who has already agreed to e-mail students at the school, had planned to be at the school's Veterans Day program this week, but Uncle Sam had other ideas.


Koontz-Clough missed a moving event that made the average school assembly look as dull as a trip to the water fountain.

According to Donna Allen, a teacher there last year, students were divided into five teams and each tackled a specific veteran-related project.

One put together a new version of the American flag, with students' red handprints forming the stripes.

Another team's students brought in pictures of relatives and family friends who had served in the military to be placed on a "Wall of Fame" A Powerpoint presentation including those pictures was also made and projected on the gymnasium wall during the event.

As the event itself began, staff signed in honored guests - local veterans - some of whom wore ball caps identifying their units and the branch of the military in which they served.

The event began with bagpipe solos of "Scotland the Brave" and "Minstrel Boy," followed by the presentation of the colors by a squad from the Martinsburg High School ROTC.

Then Principal Mark Arvon welcomed guests and offered the veterans a chance to say a few words about what serving meant to them.

Richard "Dick" Mihill, an Air Force Veteran of the Korean War, told the students he had "enlisted when I was 17 and I didn't regret a minute of it." That was so, he said, even though he had spent a year on a cold mountaintop in Korea.

"But it was good, fresh air," he said.

The featured speaker was Chief Master Sgt. John Alderton of the West Virginia National Guard, who has served since 1983, including tours in Afghanistan and Iraq. He told the audience about rising at 4 a.m. to begin 12-hour days, during which P.T. - physical training - was sometimes the only bright spot.

That's because, as he said, "sometimes the days aren't so good."

For those in the field who don't have daily access to a computer, Alderton said that hearing from the home folks is essential.

Alderton lamented the fact that in the election just concluded, fewer than 50 percent of West Virginia's registered voters had turned out.

In Afghanistan, he said, people walked from four to seven days to get to a polling place, while some Americans won't take 10 minutes to go and vote.

But Alderton's talk was not all serious. He also talked about how soldiers amused each other with silly games and dressed up in Halloween costumes made from scrounged material. Alderton said his job was to build up morale, which he did by dressing up as a Hershey's Kiss to get soldiers to laugh.

Another stunt didn't go as planned. One Christmas morning, he said, he went out to check on the troops while wearing a Santa Claus hat. A vehicle stopped and out jumped a four-star general, who asked him why he was wearing such headgear.

Building up the troops' morale, he answered. The general seemed to think that was a good thing, so off he drove, Alderton said.

It was a great event, not least of all because several hundred middle school students sat quietly and listened with great respect to the message that they have much to be thankful for - and that much of their gratitude should go to the gray-haired folks who answered the call many years ago.

Bob Maginnis is editorial page editor of The Herald-Mail newspapers.

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