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County students use letters, program to honor veterans

More than 400 fourth- and fifth-grade students at Unicoi County Intermediate School commemorated Veterans Day this year with a school-wide letter-writing campaign to veterans, as well as a program honoring local veterans last Friday afternoon.
UCIS Principal Debbie Lamie said that this year, she wanted her students to learn first-hand the sacrifice made by veterans by hosting their own program to mark the occasion.
“Last year, we went to the high school’s program, and they have always done a fabulous job with that,” Lamie said. “But we felt like it was just way over our kids’ heads.”
Lamie remarked that informal polls conducted with students at the school revealed that most of them did not realize the reason Americans celebrate Veterans Day each year.
“Just by talking to students and watching them, like at ballgames when we would have a moment of silence or say the pledge, they had no clue what Veterans Day was,” Lamie said.
In years past, according to Lamie, students were taught patriotic songs and given background information on Veterans Day and its meaning. However, Lamie feels that these teachings have fallen by the wayside.
“I can just see through our kids that we’re losing that somewhat in our culture,” she said. “I just felt like we needed to get back to that. I don’t want our kids to lose it. I want them to have respect for our veterans and for the sacrifices they make.
“I want them to have respect for our country. If you’re not proud of who you are and where you come from, how can you ever be a person of any substance?”
Lamie said this time of year is especially important to her. She had five uncles enlist in the United States military during the Vietnam conflict, including Keith and Gerald Tolley, Dean Foster, Dennis Maye and Kenneth Phillips. Her Uncle Keith’s struggles were particularly poignant to her.
“He was just beginning his life, and he didn’t have time to think about ‘Do I want to go to school?’ or ‘Do I want to get a job?’” Lamie recalled. “He had time to go to boot camp and be sent to Vietnam. At 18, he went to see death and that’s what he lived his first year out of school.
“The things he saw and did, I can’t even fathom.”
Lamie said she had a desire to see UCIS students “feel a connection” to Veterans Day and, through writing letters to the veterans themselves, she said students were able to do that while learning state-mandated skills for their grade levels.
“Everybody knows a veteran or has somebody in their family that is a veteran, and if anyone did not, we needed to get them in touch with one,” Lamie said. “The best way to put all this together was to have them write letters, which ties in to our fourth- and fifth-grade skills.”
Students composed their letters and mailed them out approximately a week before Veterans Day on Nov. 11. A representative at a nearby armory assisted students who did not have veterans in their families with finding someone to write to.
“We have had so many calls from veterans saying they got their letters,” Lamie said last week. “It makes me emotional to hear that they were touched by letters our kids sent.”
As part of last week’s program at UCIS, one boy and one girl student from both the fourth- and fifth-grade classes were selected to read their letters aloud for the audience.
“My thank-you letter seems so simple compared to the long hours you spent defending me and my country,” fourth-grader Jaylyn Lane wrote to her great-grandfather, John Maxfield. “I wanted you to know that you have had the most important job that anyone could ever have.”
Fourth-grader Diego Diaz thanked his veteran for risking his life for the safety and liberty of his country.
“All the people in America have freedom because of you,” Diaz wrote. “I want to thank you for protecting America and being brave.”
To veteran Craig Shelton, fifth-grader Madison Duncan said, “I want to let you know that I don’t just think about you on Veterans Day. I honestly think about you and all the others that have served or that are serving out there through winter, summer, bad weather or good weather, every day.”
“I … want to thank you for giving us the rights we have today and for protecting our country from people who want to hurt our country,” fifth-grader Garrett Manuel wrote.
Don Cornett, who is serving a tour in Kuwait as a brigadier general, also assisted the school in their efforts to bring the holiday to life for fourth- and fifth-graders. Cornett is the father-in-law of Kevin Hess, who teaches at UCIS.
“We were thinking about trying to Skype with the soldiers serving with him,” Lamie said. “But they literally are right in the middle of everything over there right now and we didn’t think they would let us do that.”
So, Lamie said she and the teachers organized a question drive, where students in each homeroom at the school submitted questions that they wanted to have answered by soldiers serving overseas.
At Friday’s program, a video was shown of members in Cornett’s command addressing the students at UCIS directly, and answering their submitted questions.
Students asked what soldiers eat, how often they are allowed to rest, what the climate is like where they are fighting and even what kind of animals they see on foreign soil.
Also at Friday’s program, students performed “The Star-Spangled Banner” and “God Bless America” as musical selections for a crowd of veterans who turned out for the event.
Veterans who attended were also adorned with gold stars and flag pins provided by the school, and students were encouraged to dress in patriotic colors.
Following the program, Lamie commended her students for their efforts in this year’s letter-writing campaign to veterans.
“I’m just glad that they have that awareness now that someone is out there protecting us and that freedom comes at a cost,” she said. “Somebody is paying a high price so that we can enjoy the liberties that we have.”
Lamie said the program at UCIS was recorded on video and will be sent to the soldiers in Kuwait who provided feedback to students’ questions at this year’s program.
“It’s just awesome for me to think that what we are doing here is going to reach all the way over there,” Lamie said. “It makes the world just a little bit smaller for the brave men and women who are fighting for us all the way overseas.”