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NEWS | Nov. 17, 2023

Aviation and Missile Soldiers visit local schools to celebrate Veterans Day

By Michelle L. Gordon

Like many schools across the country, Discovery Middle School in Madison, Alabama, held a Veterans Day assembly Nov. 9 to honor the service and sacrifice of veterans from all military service branches.

Aviation and Missile Commander Maj. Gen. Tom O’Connor served as the keynote speaker. He taught the students about the origin of Veterans Day and its local connection to Alabama. He taught them about the 50th anniversary of the all-volunteer force, as well as the difference between military service in the United States and other countries around the world.

“We’re in school, so I’ll do a little history lesson to highlight why we celebrate Veterans Day,” O’Connor said. “‘The War to End All Wars’ was World War I, 1914 to 1918. In 1918, on the 11th day of the 11th month, at the 11th hour, there was a ceasefire and a truce to stop the fighting, and it was celebrated as Armistice Day,” he said. “Unfortunately, a little over a decade later, World War II broke out, and we had about 85 million casualties across the world.” 

O’Connor said that following the end of World War II, Raymond Weeks, a local Alabama veteran, started a movement that ultimately led to changing Armistice Day to Veterans Day — to honor and recognize the sacrifices of veterans from all conflicts.

“We celebrate Veterans Day on Armistice Day to honor all of those veterans who stood up to defend our way of life and our freedom,” he said.

Military-connected students invited their veteran family members to attend the special assembly. During his remarks, O’Connor thanked them for their service, noting that they were part of the all-volunteer force, which went into effect 50 years ago this year. He said it was an honor to stand with them and represent them. 

O’Connor’s final history lesson was about the U.S. Constitution. 

He told the students, “Our country was founded on some pretty essential documents, and we, as veterans of the all-volunteer force, raised our right hand and swore an oath of allegiance – not to a president, not to a king, not to an institution, but to a way of life. We all raised our right hands, and we swore that we would support and defend the Constitution of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic.” 

Event coordinator Sara Baragona said this is the 11th Annual Discovery Middle School Veterans Day program, and she has been part of coordinating nearly all of them. With several family members serving in various military branches over the years, she said this program is important to her personally, and she wants to ensure the students understand the day’s significance.

“Students here in Huntsville are surrounded by veterans, but they often don’t realize it,” she said. “I want the students to understand why we do this and why it is a big deal. The more we talk about it in classes and the more conversations we have with students, the more they start to understand and make connections about what military service means to their veteran family members.”  

Later in the day, another AMCOM Soldier spoke about the importance of Veterans Day to a much younger crowd. 

Lt. Col. Jordan Dilena, who serves as the AMCOM executive officer, visited Jones Valley Elementary School in Huntsville, Alabama, where another set of students invited their veteran family members to attend a special assembly.

Dilena led a parade of veterans through the school hallways, lined with kindergarten through sixth grade students, who waved flags and cheered as they walked past. The parade culminated in the cafeteria, where the assembly began. Dilena was the keynote speaker, and he likened serving in the military to playing on a sports team.

“When you play sports, you practice with your team,” he said. “And sometimes your players go away, and you get new players, so you have to practice with them. It’s the same way in the Army and all of the armed services. We always have to practice so we get better, and then we end up going to the playoffs. Our playoffs are when we deploy to defend the nation overseas.”

He told the young students that police officers and firefighters serve and protect them here at home, and the military service branches serve and protect them away from home — “to keep the bad guys away from home.”

Dilena, who has two young kids about the same age as his audience, said during his 15 years of military service, he has traveled to Tennessee, Alabama, Kansas, Honduras, Germany, Poland, and Latvia and deployed to Afghanistan twice.

He thanked the students for the opportunity to talk to them and reminded them to remember what Veterans Day stands for, which was the official ending of one of the worst conflicts in the world on the 11th hour, of the 11th day, of the 11th month in 1918.

Event coordinator Kristen Tumminello said it is important for her, as a teacher, to expose the students to the military. She said growing up in Florence, Alabama, during the 1970s, she did not have that in school. She said that is what fuels her desire to ensure the students understand the importance of Veterans Day and the service and sacrifice of veterans. 

“I think it’s important for everybody to see the military and even on a lower-elementary level, to understand the sacrifice and what they give for our country,” Tumminello said. “That is the main reason I want all of our students to witness and learn about what it means to serve.”