On a sun-splashed Higley High School football field blanketed with a warm autumn breeze on Friday, more than 3,000 people came to celebrate military veterans for their service and sacrifices they made through the decades for the freedoms we enjoy today that did not come for free.
If you weren’t there, you missed out.
But it’s not too late — Veterans Day is Sunday and observed by many on Monday — and there are many vets, retired and active throughout the East Valley, that we can thank for their service and sacrifices.
On Friday, it was a good sign that Higley schools Superintendent Denise Birdwell, whose father served in the U.S. Air Force, said more chairs have to be added every year to accommodate the larger numbers of attendees coming to the celebration, an event made possible by the school’s governing board and sponsored by local businesses.
I was lucky to be there covering the fine-tuned celebration as I believe it is my duty, responsibility, honor and privilege to keep up my tradition of writing about military veterans leading up to Veterans Day as long as I have the freedom to be a journalist.
It not only gives me a break from writing about the bad stuff, but I do it because I am able to write about some amazing men — and women — who served our country and made great sacrifices during times of war and peace, something we see so little of these days. I’m all for hearing a good story, and these people tell amazing and compelling stories of their service and heroism in a humble way.
The vets I have interviewed in the past have included those who served in World War I (I was lucky to have interviewed three of the last four surviving WWI vets in our nation, who now are all gone), World War II vets (some who witnessed “A day that will live in infamy” at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, fought in the pivotal D-Day Invasion of Normandy on June 6, 1944, or were on a ship to Japan hours before the United States dropped the atomic bombs.
I’ve also heard the stories of those who served in Korea, Vietnam and the ongoing conflicts in the Middle East.
Not only have these vets served us well but they served our nation with patriotism and pride. They still carry that pride in their hearts and wear it on their sleeves.
On Friday, many of those veterans were from the East Valley, heroes among us whose stories often have not extended beyond their family and friends or the local American Legion or VFW.
“We hold this event for two reasons,” Birdwell said in her address to the veterans. “First, we do this to honor all that you have done. Second, is to inspire the students and to help them understand that freedom isn’t free. We thank you all.”
“On Monday, we will take time to pause, and then, we’ll continue after we’ve taken that time to remember,” Birdwell added. Later quoting historian Bruce Catton, Birdwell said, “Our American heritage is greater than any one of us.”
Although perhaps the oldest vet in attendance at the event in Higley on Friday was Army Cpl. Joseph Ableman of Mesa, who is 95 (he served in the Army from 1945 to 1946 during the American occupation of Japan after World War II), that “generation gap” was bridged through patriotism and pride displayed by Higley’s students and faculty making speeches, singing songs and also remembering those who did not return from battle.
“I remember my fellow soldiers and friends on Veterans Day,” said Ableman, who served on a ship that landed in Japan after the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He later served in Japan during the American occupation of that country following the war. “Many of them are gone. I remember meeting the people in Japan, too,” Ableman added.
Mark Hill, a member of the Patriot Freedom Riders who served with the Army near the end of the Vietnam War from 1973 to 1976, and Marine James Marsh, 79, of Mesa, who served in Korea for 18 months, also were at the event.
Whether it was Higley sophomore Keli Rutledge belting out the National Anthem, student Sierra Burgess speaking about her “military father” joining the service in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, or Higley governing board president Greg Land speaking about his grandfather guarding the Enola Gay before the plane flew on its mission to drop the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, their speeches were heartfelt.
I sometimes think of some of my relatives or older friends who served — an uncle who said he was older than he was so he could serve in World War II, an uncle who served in Okinawa and swam in the Pacific Ocean on Christmas Eve during World War II, an uncle who served in Korea. A former boss, who gave me my first part-time job at my hometown grocery store, also served in the Korean War.
I never heard very many of their war stories, and although I thanked them for the personal things they did for me, I don’t think I ever really thanked them for their military service as was heavily encouraged by those who spoke at Higley. The guest speakers included retired Army Command Sgt. Jorge Valderrama, who was a paratrooper in a special operations unit and was part of some of the Army’s most clandestine missions. Retired Navy Rear Admiral James Symonds, who once served on the USS Ronald Reagan also spoke.
Symonds said, “Our technical capabilities have been challenged, but it is the courage of soldiers that makes the difference; the “steeliness” of their souls makes the difference in combat.
Both Symonds and Valderrama had distinguished military careers, and Valderrama, who is a native of Bolivia, said he left the country as he feared that it would turn into a communist government similar to Cuba.
“I am passionate about democracy,” Valderrama said. “I believe that this is what we do, and we need to carry the standard all over the world.”
Concluding, Valderrama challenged the students to find their passion.
Although the greatest sacrifices the students and staff at Higley may have made for Friday’s event was the hours they spent rehearsing for the day or having lunch a little later on Friday, I would give them all an A-plus and maybe extra credit.
All the veterans in attendance served our country well and Higley thanked them well as we all should, come each and every Veterans Day.
Contact writer: (480) 898-6533 or firstname.lastname@example.org