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Veterans honored at local schools

Penn student Hailey Craig poses with her grandfather, Guy Cornwell, one of the veterans recognized at an all-school Veterans Day program at Penn Elementary in North Liberty. (photo by Lori Lindner)

NORTH LIBERTY– Veterans were the honorees of the day at schools across the country Nov. 11, including Penn and Van Allen elementary schools in North Liberty.

Van Allen
Van Allen Elementary School has celebrated the day of remembrance for a number of years, with the school’s Team 2 students and teachers hosting local veterans for a brief assembly and refreshments, and inviting guests to individual classrooms. Some of the veterans give presentations to classes and speak of their time in the military.
Carlos Medina and his wife, Shannon Medina, are both U.S. Navy veterans. Carlos was 17 years old when he joined the Navy and worked on the USS Bataan, an amphibious ship used to transport Marines and equipment to various locations. The couple met while in the Navy, and this was the second Veterans Day event they have attended.
“It’s a nice thing for them to remember us and everyone who has served and are fighting now for our country,” said Carlos.
Shannon said recognizing Veterans Day is particularly important for schools and communities that have no military facilities nearby.
“A lot of those kids don’t see it, so I think it is important to have this (recognition). In Virginia, where we lived, the kids talked about it every day, because they all had someone or knew someone in (military service),” she said.
Shannon and Carlos were among those veterans speaking in Van Allen classrooms that day, and Carlos’ message to the children was straightforward.
“Stay in school, stay out of trouble, and pay attention,” he said with a smile. He also spoke about the importance of volunteerism. “Just… give back. This is the most powerful country in the world, and for the opportunities we get and the sacrifices that have been made, we need to give back.”
Shannon said she was especially grateful for the chance to demonstrate that women have a role in the military as well.
“(I want) them to know that real people, who are living here and have kids, did it, and it’s okay,” said Shannon. “It seems hard, but you can get through it and it makes you a stronger person.”
Jim Miller, of North Liberty, served in the Iowa National Guard from 1970-1976, and his grandson is a second grader at Van Allen. He appreciated the recognition the school offered those who served, and the message he shared is that soldiers aren’t just trained for fighting.
“They are there for support (of civilians), and a deterrent to anyone who would want to harm our nation,” said Miller. Growing up in the Cold War era, Miller added, “we were taught that part of the strength of our country was also having the reserves and the National Guard able to go on active duty. We are all in this together; not only the soldiers, but the families as well.”
Lt. Col. Leland Belding, whose sixth-grade daughter attends Van Allen, related similar sentiments. Belding served in the Iowa National Guard for 26 years and has been a guest speaker at Van Allen before. Students ask great questions about his wartime service, he said, and he appreciated the chance to explain the realities of the military versus what they see in movies and on television.
“These kids have grown up with war; my daughter was born in 2004, and I was deployed in 2003 for the war, and they see nothing but negative (in the media),” Belding said. As a member of the National Guard, for example, Belding was deployed to assist in two of Iowa’s major flood events. “So this is a way for them to meet people that are soldiers who have done positive things in the world, and hear their stories. Not just sound bytes from Hollywood.”
Belding’s daughter, Andrea, had a little advice for her classmates as well.
“Be happy that you have your parents around,” said Andrea. “I’m glad my dad stopped being in the army, because I get to see him now.”

At Penn Elementary School, students and staff celebrated the day school-wide, with their first-ever Veterans Day recognition event.
Penn Counselor Dawn Zacek, along with Family Resource Center Student and Family Advocate Kris Hynek, helped coordinate the day’s activities.
Hynek said there was a simple reason the school had not held a Veterans Day recognition before.
“We had discussed doing it before, for quite some time, but we simply didn’t have the space,” said Hynek. The school was recently expanded with additional classroom space, a new library and a brand new gym. “This is the first time we could accommodate every student, staff member and guests all in one place.”
Zacek said the school’s decision to routinely recite the Pledge of Allegiance was also a factor.
“During that discussion, Kris talked about the need to help kids understand what or who a veteran is, and why that is special. The Veterans Day assembly idea was then born,” said Zacek.
The school’s new space allowed all students and staff to welcome their military family members. Twenty-six names were read to the crowd, along with notes about their service, while their related students stood.
Though the coordinating committee had a small expense budget, they only had to buy one thing for Veterans Day; the giant flag that hung on the west wall of the gym.
“Everything else was donated. Kids made all the signs, the art teacher made a big freedom sign, and absolutely everything else we needed was donated.”
The entire staff and student body were involved in the program, with kindergarten classes sporting mini-flags, marching through the gym and singing “Yankee Doodle,” while older students made signs and wrote handmade cards that were distributed to every guest. Four students put on a skit that explained what Veterans Day is about. Prior to the event, discussions in the fifth and sixth grade classrooms generated a list of questions that would be answered by two panelist speakers after the large group program. Even Penn preschoolers got into the act, making handprint flag decorations.
“We wanted it to be a learning tool, as well,” said Hynek. “We involved everybody, not only because it was one of our first big assemblies, but because we wanted kids to have ownership. They were beyond helpful, and so excited.”
Hynek’s husband is a Vietnam veteran who attended the program. She said the cards made by the fifth and sixth grade students were especially meaningful to him and other veterans who came.
“That was the first thing he showed me when we got home, and those cards are still on his dresser,” said Hynek. “We had one grandpa write a card thanking us for the incredible assembly, and thanked– by name– the three kids whose cards he had received.”
Guy Cornwell is a retired Marine who earned two Purple Heart honors in Vietnam, and he came at the invitation of granddaughter Hailey Craig, a kindergarten student at Penn. Hailey said she is proud of her grandfather, and happy he was able to come.
“He was soldier in the war,” said Hailey. “To protect our country.”
Cornwell described Penn’s Veterans Day event as “wonderful. I mean, everybody was patriotic when I was younger, but we never had anything like this in our school. I think it’s great,” he said.
Especially great was the appreciation shown to those who have served, he added. “You see some of the older vets here today, and it’s hard to see them grow old. I think they need to be remembered for all they’ve done.”