Students honor those who fought for freedom

by Jeff McGonigal
Anoka-Hennepin School District


Friday, Nov. 9 was the last school day to precede Veterans Day. All week in my home, a flyer from Rum River Elementary School on the counter, reminded me that my nine-year-old son, Michael would take part in an event honoring veterans.

Michael has visited my father’s grave at Fort Snelling many times, so he knew Grandpa Bill served in the Marines at the close of World War II. My son never knew his grandfather, who died years before his birth. For some reason this event at school made Michael more curious about his grandfather’s service to our country.

I fielded questions about grandpa and his service all week. Did he shoot a gun? Did he have to fight? Did he fly a plane? Having learned so much, my son asked to bring Grandpa Bill’s picture in uniform with him to school. I eagerly printed a copy and handed it to him. He grabbed his backpack and gave me a second hug saying, “I might cry today at school, but that’s OK, isn’t it?” I softly replied, “Yes.”

Later that morning, I visited Anoka High School as its staff and students honored veterans. Throughout the district Friday, Nov. 9 and Monday, Nov. 12, veterans were honored for their service and sacrifice. Anoka High School held a beautifully designed assembly. Students filled the bleachers surrounding a group of veterans invited to sit up front. The stage included student leaders, Principal Mike Farley, himself a veteran of the Navy, and special guest speaker Army Capt. Pete Hegseth, who recently served in Afghanistan.

I learned Hegseth is the son of my friend, Brian Hegseth, who works for Centennial Schools, making the presentation personal to me. Capt. Hegseth explained the history of Veterans Day and its importance to our country. He recounted the story of a recent Medal of Honor winner, Marine Sgt. Dakota Meyer, and his sacrifice in combat; you could have heard a pin drop. I regularly work with high-energy high school students and their attention to his words was profound.

Following the speaker, a full high school orchestra played a medley of songs representing the five branches of our military. The school choir added to the beauty singing the lyrics. Each song was introduced and veterans in attendance stood as their branch was recognized. A round of applause followed. I, like many others, was holding back tears.

The message I take from my experience with this year’s Veterans Day is that the holiday remains important. Young people should ask questions about its significance and adults should have answers. The attention my son gave to his grandfather is similar to the attention Anoka High School students gave to Capt. Hegseth and the veterans present. Everyone came away with a better understanding of why we honor these men and women and their service.

Jeff McGonigal is the associate superintendent of high schools in the Anoka-Hennepin School District.

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