EAGLE COUNTY — Mark and Michael Hay stood tall and proud as they flanked their grandfather, Mike Hay, during their school’s Veterans Day assembly.
Mark is a Webelos Scout and was in full uniform, along with a couple dozen other Boy Scouts and Cub Scouts, Girls Scouts and Brownies.
The school assemblies opened with excitement and anticipation, as they should.
It ended with “Taps,” as they must.
In between the students asked great questions, like “What inspired you to join the military?”
Or, “What’s the difference between Veterans Day and Memorial Day?”
Or, “When were you the most scared?”
Mike Hay is a reluctant hero, and one of the members of the local Veterans of Foreign Wars post touring local schools, helping students understand that there’s a price to be paid for our freedom, and that it’s often paid by people they know and love.
Choosing to serve
These days, the military is all-volunteer; men and women choose to serve. It wasn’t always like that.
Mike was drafted.
“The draft is like winning the lottery in reverse,” he said.
Mike Hay was 18 years old and living in his Indiana hometown. The Army sent him to Kansas, then to Fort Dix, N.J., then to Vietnam as a communications specialist in the signal corps.
“We got to go in first and come back last,” Mike said.
He was 18 years old and the military wanted two years of his life. He took some tests and did so well that the military decided it wanted three years of his life.
“Everyone around me was just like I was,” he said. “We were afraid of the unknown.”
A few good men are sometimes women
It takes all kinds to fight for freedom.
Pete Thompson says he was in the military a long time ago. He did stuff so secret he still can’t talk about.
One vet was a dentist in the Air Force. One was a teacher and another was a nurse.
Mike Halas is a captain in the Army. He started in the Army infantry and is now with the Green Beret, a special forces unit.
Rachel Messerich comes from a long line of soldiers. Her father and two brothers were sergeants in the Texas Army National Guard. She was finishing her first year as a teacher when she decided to join, over the objections of her mother.
“My dad and brothers were so proud,” she told the students.
The military taught her what her strengths and weaknesses were, and that she was stronger than she knew.
“We started basic training at Fort Dix, N.J., at the same time a group of men did. We learned we could do anything they could do, and sometimes better.”
The Marines had 25 openings they needed to fill when Wayne Cassidy, a local Vietnam era veteran, showed up at the military induction center. When the sergeant asked for volunteers. One hand went up.
“OK,” the sergeant said. “All you guys hiding in the back come down here and fill these first two rows.”
When they moved down, the sergeant barked out, “Everyone in the first two rows is going to be a Marine. Congratulations!”
“I didn’t join the Marine Corps. The Marine Corps joined me,” Cassidy said.
Freedom worth fighting for
Halas, who just came off active duty and serves with the reserves, pulled a copy of the U.S. Constitution from his jacket pocket.
“We all pledged an oath to protect and defend the Constitution from all enemies foreign and domestic,” Thompson said.
Thompson pointed out that the Constitution opens with “We the people ... ” then rolls into its seven articles and its 27 amendments, Thompson said, pointing out to the hundreds of students that it’s the Constitution that guarantees the rights Americans enjoy, and that people in some countries don’t enjoy anything like those rights.
Thompson acknowledged a group of women in the front row and pointed out that in some countries they’re not allowed to drive. He then looked across the faces of the hundreds of bright, hopeful faces and explained that in some of those same countries girls are not allowed to attend school.
We have choices in life, and part of the local Veterans Day presentations were designed to help seniors considering the military make informed choices.
U.S. Marine Corps Lt. Col. vice Major Bernie Krueger was tabbed to be promoted to colonel as he was finishing his 22nd year with the Marines. He loved the Marines, still does, but he loves his wife and children more. The promotion would have meant another four years. He chose to leave the Marines and come home. Now he’s enjoying the freedom he helped defend.
“The military has been an all-volunteer force since Vietnam,” Krueger explained to a class at Eagle Valley High School. “They chose to serve, to leave their families.”
On the other hand, Krueger said when he flew helicopters from Navy vessels he was working with his best friends, he loved flying and got to travel the world.
Thank a vet
Veterans Day started as Armistice Day, Nov. 11, 1918, to close World War I, Halas explained. It marked the end of fighting on the Western Front between the Allies and Germany. The armistice was signed at 11 a.m., Nov. 11, “the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month.”
It’s called Remembrance Day in Great Britain and is a national holiday in most of the countries allied against the Germans in World War I.
In many parts of the world, people observe two consecutive minutes of silence at 11 a.m. local time as a sign of respect in the first minute for the roughly 20 million people who died in the war, and in the second minute dedicated to the living left behind, generally understood to be wives, children and families left behind.
“If you have a chance, thank a veteran,” Thompson said.
Staff Writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935 and rwyrick@vail daily.com.