Vail Valley veterans tour local schools teaching lessons they learned in military service |

Vail Valley veterans tour local schools teaching lessons they learned in military service

Steve O'Neil, Headmaster of Vail Christian High School, shows the Purple Heart his grandpa received, and he was given during the Vail Christian Veteran's Day Program Thursday, Nov. 8, in Edwards. O'Neil said make sure you take time and thank a veteran in one's life before it's too late.
Chris Dillmann |

If You Go …

What: Veterans Day Ceremony.

When: 11 a.m. Sunday, Nov. 11.

Where: Freedom Park Memorial, Edwards.

Cost: Free.

More information: This is the 13th annual ceremony. Keynote speaker Doyle Cooper, U.S. Navy, is the lead education volunteer at the Center for American Values, which honors Medal of Honor recipients.

Veterans Day used to be called Armistice Day, commemorating the end of World War I on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, Nov. 11, 1918. Sunday is the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I, in which 116,516 died.

EDWARDS — If you’re breathing free air in America, every day is Veterans Day.

Members of the local Veterans of Foreign Wars post conducted their annual marathon, visiting 20 schools in what has become Veterans Week. The students were glad to see them. The veterans were happy to be there.

Their presentations are lessons in history and life. It’s one thing to conduct an academic exercise about names, dates and the political climate that led to wars. It’s quite another to meet someone who fought, killed and almost died — and has the scars and Purple Heart to prove it.

Patricia Hammond was an Army nurse in Vietnam. Pete Thompson can tell you what it’s like to be on the ground, fighting through the jungles. The stories eventually end, but our gratitude never should, said Steve O’Neil, headmaster of Vail Christian High School.

“Don’t wait to thank a veteran,” O’Neil said.

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O’Neil’s grandfather volunteered to fight in World War II. The U.S. military was short of soldiers after the D-Day invasions, so he answered the call and left his two young sons behind and joined the Army. O’Neill said he did not ask his grandfather much about the war, something he said he regrets. He said it as he held up his grandfather’s Purple Heart for his teenage students to see.

Someone has your back

Kent Lambrecht runs Vail Valley Pharmacy, using lessons he learned in the Air Force fixing F-15s while serving in the Middle East. You don’t always get what you want. He asked for Hawaii. He got Saudi Arabia and a tent in 120-degree heat.

Lambrecht’s dad was a Vietnam veteran, and like all caring fathers, he was concerned for his young son. Eventually, Lambrecht found his way. The military showed him the path. He called it “remedial living.”

The military showed him how to do everything: how to stand, how to walk, how to fold a T-shirt into a 4-inch square, how to follow simple instructions.

“Following simple instructions is not that hard,” Lambrecht said.

Most of all, though, he learned that you cannot do anything by yourself.

About that one, Lambrecht learned that the military is a microcosm of the world and it’s filled with both achievers and slackers. Lambrecht learned to surround himself with achievers.

He is proud of the business he built and the people who helped.

“Surround yourself with good people,” Lambrecht told the Vail Christian High School students. “Someone always has your back.”

Place and passion

Gary Thornton spent 30 years in the Coast Guard — the branch of the military to serve in every American war, as well as during peace time — after graduating the Coast Guard Academy.

“I studied different branches of the military, and the Coast Guard was the perfect fit for me,” Thornton said, explaining to the students that finding your place is important, along with finding your passion.

John Horan-Kates was born on the day World War II ended and was raised in Detroit. He graduated Wayne State University in 1967, as the Vietnam War was being beamed into living rooms around America.

He joined the Navy, saying, “I would rather be in the Navy than be in the dirt.”

“We didn’t know then what we know now. We knew our country was at war, and I wanted to serve,” Horan-Kates said.

The USS Jennings County was stationed 60 miles up the Mekong River in the jungle, supplying boats that patrolled and engaged anything that looked like an enemy.

“We were like a floating Walmart. We supplied food, medical supplies, weapons and ammunition … everything,” Horan-Kates said.

Among other things, the young officer learned to lead 60 men, all of whom had more battle experience than he did.

He was in charge, he said, but he had Master Chiefs among his men who were working on their second or third wars.

“I quickly learned not to pretend that I had all the answers,” Horan-Kates said.

He let the Navy teach him how to keep his men and himself alive, when so many were trying to kill them.

“It’s called leading from behind,” Horan-Kates said.

Horan-Kates skied as a kid in Michigan and stopped by Vail in the late 1960s on his way to San Francisco, where the Navy had plans for him that did not include snowsports.

Michigan, he said, was like skiing on a landfill, both literally and metaphorically.

He decided that Vail would be where he would plant his flag. He would become the fledgling ski company’s marketing director.

Horan-Kates didn’t know anything about marketing or accounting, but like the men on the USS Jennings County, he tapped into the knowledge and experience of the people around him. He badgered accountants and marketing experts to teach him what they knew.

Eventually, he landed in Vail’s marketing department.

Staff Writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935 and

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