More than any other holiday, Veterans Day has the capacity to unite generations – even those no longer with us.
As he stood in the hallway Friday morning at Sacajawea Middle School, Dave Van Hersett beheld an old, brown leather jacket. His father, George, had worn it though 54 missions aboard a B-17 over the skies of Nazi Germany.
“Fifty-four missions,” Van Hersett said, letting the number sink in.
Most crews didn’t make it past a dozen.
“They were damn lucky,” Van Hersett said.
Perhaps it was the jacket, which is a family treasure worn for occasions like this. On Friday, it hung over the proud shoulders of Van Hersett’s grandson, Sacajawea eighth-grader Cole Van Hersett.
Hand-painted on faded leather are small bombs and the likeness of his great-grandfather’s plane, “The Big Noise.”
On Friday morning, Cole was the coolest kid on the South Hill. Moments earlier, he had played in the eighth-grade band at Sacajawea’s annual Veterans Day assembly.
The hourlong event was as poignant as that jacket, even if the actual holiday is on Monday.
With songs and words, Sacajawea paid tribute to all American veterans. About 50 of them – from every service branch and every conflict since World War II – were seated in a place of honor in the middle of the old gym.
They rose one by one as their names were called.
As directed, the crowd of held their applause until the last veteran retook his seat. Then they let loose, 800 pair of hands clapping for almost 2 minutes.
Some of the veterans turned their heads and nodded in appreciation.
Near the end of the assembly, several teachers spoke of loved ones who wore the uniform long ago – and some who still do.
English teacher Shannon Ward told the audience about her grandfather, Lester Klauwunder. Seventy-five years ago he fought the Nazis in the Battle of the Bulge.
Back in Spokane, his wife and two young sons received word that Klauwunder had died on that snowy battlefield in Belgium.
“She spent weeks in sadness,” Ward said.
Then another miracle, much like Van Hersett’s: Her husband had survived.
Klauwunder returned, and those two boys – one of them Ward’s father – also served their country, went to college thanks to the G.I. Bill and became teachers.
Speaking again of her grandfather, Ward said, “I didn’t fully recognize the gravity of his sacrifice until I started teaching the eighth-grade unit about the Holocaust and World War II.”
“If not for the sacrifices of my grandfather and millions of others who fought in this war, the world could look very different today,” Ward said.
One thing hasn’t changed: Ward’s family is still serving.
Her brother, a West Point graduate who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan, retired last summer after 30 years in the Army.
Ward’s daughter Kimberly went to school at Sacajawea, graduated from Lewis and Clark High School and is in the Washington Army National Guard.
Kimberly’s story is told, alongside the stories of others with Sacajawea ties, on the school’s “Heroes Wall.” Also on the wall is the story of Army Ranger Jerry Ochse, who served two tours in Vietnam.
His son Jeremy, the principal at Sacajawea, opened the event by asking all to honor the sacrifices of millions of veterans.
Ward closed her speech by asking students to “find a veteran – it could be a family member, a neighbor or a family friend. Thank them for their service to our country.”
Moments later, as they filed back to class, students were doing just that. They also directed the veterans and their families toward the library, where the school served refreshments.
The Van Hersetts were heading in that direction when asked about the jacket.
“He likes to talk about it a lot,” Cole said as the extended family stopped in the same hallways where all four of Dave’s children once walked.
They also wore that jacket, the one George Van Hersett – North Central High School class of 1937 – wore as a navigator in the skies over Europe.
He didn’t come home unscathed – the family still has a fragment from the flak that led to a Purple Heart – but he did come back.
And he kept serving until losing his life in a crash in Korea.
“He’d be 102 now,” said the elder Van Hersett, who carried on the tradition. After graduating from NC in 1957, he earned an engineering degree at Washington State and later served in the Air Force.
Van Hersett appreciated the moment – and the sacrifices of all veterans and their families.
“I think this gives kids some idea of why they got the freedom they have,” Van Hersett said. “It’s the 1% who were actually in service of our country who allow them to do what they do.”
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