It was a labor of love that the students, faculty and staff at Potomac Heights Elementary School in Hagerstown started planning less than a month ago to honor a fallen hero they never met.
On Thursday, they quietly filed into the cafeteria to hold the school's first ever Veterans Day assembly, an event that featured patriotic songs, speeches from veterans and the release of almost 300 balloons into a chilly autumn sky.
First-grade teacher Jean Minnick said they came up with the idea shortly after U.S. Army 1st Lt. Ashley White-Stumpf was killed Oct. 22 by an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan.
White-Stumpf was the sister-in-law of Potomac Heights teacher Kate White.
"The teachers met, and we just tried to come up with ways to make it meaningful for the kids," Minnick said. "We like to get the students involved with these activities."
Minnick said the Potomac Heights community started planning in earnest on Nov. 1, when they decided to inflate 284 balloons for the students to release after the ceremony. Cards with the names of family and friends who served or are serving in the military were attached to the balloons.
But the most touching part of the ceremony involved a flag-folding demonstration by American Legion veterans, who explained each of the 13 steps, then presented it to White-Stumpf's brother, Josh White, his wife, Kate, and their 7-month-old daughter.
"It was amazing," Josh White said after his family accepted the flag. "She was here in spirit and would have loved it."
Josh White said his sister's job in Afghanistan involved providing medical support to the women and children of the war-torn country.
"She died doing a beautiful thing," he said. "She wasn't over there to bring death. She was there to bring compassion."
About 50 people in addition to the students, faculty and staff attended the event.
Third-grader Ayden Morningstar said he had a nice time.
Students prepared by talking about "a lot of people and how they fought in the war. We talked about it in class," Ayden said.
Hagerstown resident Charles Stockslager, 70, said his 6-year-old grandson, Andrew Neisser, is a student at the school.
"The assembly was very nice," said Stockslager, a U.S. Army veteran. "I think they were taught a lot about the meaning of Veterans Day."
Stockslager said he believed the event was important because too many people don't appreciate the meaning of Veterans Day, or have negative feelings about veterans.