CLEWISTON — Despite some students being ordered to quarantine at the last minute, due to COVID-19 exposure, as well as having to face a blustery wind and threats of a tropical storm, the Clewiston High School Public Service Academy (CHSPSA) held a beautiful and heartfelt Veterans Day ceremony in honor of all the brave men and women veterans who have served in our military.
The ceremony was held at the Civic Park, where students from the CHSPSA, under the guide of their teacher Kristine Petersen, spoke about the importance of honoring veterans and recognizing the sacrifices they have made for the country.
Dressed sharply in their uniforms, with flags to represent the Army, Marine Corps, Navy, Air Force and Coast Guard, as well as a POW/MIA memorial flag, the students were precise, professional and seeming to be well-rehearsed.
The guest speaker was Lt. Col. Todd Polk of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, who serves as the deputy commander for South Florida of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Jacksonville District.
“Today we celebrate Veterans Day and recognize all who have served, and continue to serve, our nation with honor and distinction. It is my privilege to be here to honor our veterans, at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month on this 83rd Veterans Day,” he said.
“For the better part of a century, our nation celebrated Veterans Day on the anniversary of the armistice that ended the fighting along the Western Front, known at the time as ‘The Great War,’ on Nov. 11, 1918. The following November President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed Nov. 11, 1919, as the first commemoration of Armistice Day. In 1938, the United States Congress designated Veterans Day as an official Federal Holiday, in commemoration of the of ‘the war to end all wars.’
“As we all well know, we would not have referred to it as World War I without a second global conflict, World War II, and the past 102 years have not been free from conflicts around the globe and here at home.
“While 2020 may be a year I’m sure many of us would have just as well skipped, I would be remiss if I didn’t recognize that over this past year, we commemorated the seventy-fifth anniversary of the end of World War II. As I remember and contemplate on the remarkable and selfless contributions of veterans from the ‘Greatest Generation’ I cannot help but think about their legacy of service and what it means to me and the subsequent three generations that have followed.
“World War II changed a generation of people. Sixteen million Americans officially served in it, and that doesn’t count all the contractors and civilian labor back home who supported it. All of American life required unity to ensure the Allies would emerge victorious over fascism in Europe and Japan. I stand before you the proud son of a Vietnam veteran, and grandson of three WWII veterans, my father’s father who served under General Patton’s command from the time they disembarked from training in Fort Benning, Georgia, to North Africa, Sicily, then through the Ardennes Forest of France, and into the Rhineland of Germany by April 1945. My mother is the daughter of a sergeant in the Women Army Corps, or WACs as they were known, and served in England and France during the war, and her father, the youngest of 11, ran away from the family farm in Ohio at the age of 15 to join the Army in 1926. Retiring as a sergeant major, his service spanned 32 years highlighted with combat service throughout Europe during WWII and then again at the Chosin Reservoir in Korea.
“When Allies in Victory in Europe was attained spring of 1945, America and most of the world celebrated. Yet, four more grueling months of combat continued in the Pacific theater. But by mid-August, Japan surrendered unconditionally in formal agreement on Sept. 2, 1945, when Japanese Emperor Hirohito’s representatives signed the unconditional surrender on the decks of the battleship USS Missouri, marking the end of hostilities of the most destructive and far-reaching war in human history.
“The Department of Veterans Affairs reports that of the 16 million Americans who served in World War II, less than 300,000 are still with us. Once their service was over, they came home, married and had families; many of you, like me, are also direct descents of those who returned home to continue a legacy.
“By definition, a legacy is passed on from one generation to the next, often referred to as money or gifts of property. But it also means to place one’s stamp on the future and contributions to future generations; much like a runner in a relay race, taking the baton, giving their best, and passing it on to the next runner at nearly full speed.
“Regardless of the military branch our veterans served — Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines or Coast Guard — this day belongs to them and their longstanding legacy. Generations of patriots who have dedicated themselves to the defense of our country make us stronger and more resilient as a nation.
“In the Army, once you earn the title ‘soldier,’ you are a ‘soldier for life.’ While you may transition from service, many of us current soldiers will forever more identify with our brothers and sisters in arms.
“Soldiers live by the Army values of loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity and personal courage. They do not leave behind their values, virtues and skills when they transition to civilian life. Those values and virtues are honed and hardened, just like that baton handed on from one runner to the next, the unparalleled commitment to defending the future of our nation, ethics and dedication to service are the indelible stamp on our current and future generations.
“Each year our legacy continues to grow, and a grateful nation sets aside this day to celebrate and pay tribute to America’s veterans for their devotion, patriotism, selfless service and sacrifice on behalf of us all.
“Our nation’s veterans throughout our history kept us free, returned home and continued to serve our nation in a multitude of ways. Today, we say thanks to them all.
“I want to thank you for inviting me to speak here today; and to my fellow veterans here in attendance, thank you for your service. I’d also like to thank all veterans, past, present and future.
“Future … yes, future. Your decision to grab that baton as it is passed off from the previous generation, and then sprint at full speed, is your commitment to preserving and continuing a legacy. In the end we are citizens of this one great nation, and we cannot and will not forget the legacy,” Polk concluded.
At the end of the ceremony, Petersen thanked the students for their diligence, as some were ninth graders who stepped up at the last minute to fill in for those who had to cancel.
The small, masked and socially distanced crowd applauded the students and their teacher for a job well done.
Many corps employees are veterans
Many of the people who work in the Army Corps of Engineers, Jacksonville District, which covers most of Florida, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, are veterans. Of the 72 people who work with the corps’ South Florida Operations Office in Clewiston, 35 are veterans. They have served in all branches of the service, and now continue to serve as civilians in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. They are frequently essential workers, who often work long hours, overtime, nights and weekends to meet our many missions. They are the people who continually work hard to keep Clewiston and the other communities around Lake Okeechobee and the Herbert Hoover Dike safe.