With the values of leadership and service at the heart of the mission of Mountain Island Charter School, Veterans Day was an opportune time for the student body to honor the men and women who exhibit those virtues in service to their country.
Students were asked to invite family members who had served or were currently serving in the military to spend the day at the school. Members of the Armed Forces representing the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines came that morning - some wearing their military fatigues and others in full-dress uniform. Students could not help but be impressed by insignia suggesting rank, military branch and honors received.
Fathers, uncles, grandfathers, a mother and a 92-year-old great-grandfather, a survivor of Pearl Harbor, were there to speak to students about their service, past and present. A few vets said it was the first time they'd worn their uniforms in many years, and were gratified to find that they could still fit into them.
Although some were in training condition, others had reverted to a more expansive civilian look. As they chatted before heading off to individual classrooms to speak to the students, stories of postings and encounters abounded.
When the conversation turned to a recent History Channel documentary on the war in Vietnam, it quickly became apparent that strong feelings remained among those who had served in that war. For active and recently retired vets, the conflict in the Middle East was soon a part of the conversation.
"Substitute Afghanistan for Vietnam and LBJ for Bush, and you have an idea of what's going on in the Middle East right now," one vet was heard to say. Another said, "I watched a documentary on our involvement in Afghanistan and I jumped behind my footstool when I heard the tracers coming in."
Tony Harper, 63, has three grandkids at Mountain Island. He was drafted at age 19 and served two years in the Army. Married in June of '68 while in Advanced Infantry Training (AIT), he was shipped out to Vietnam, unaware his wife was pregnant. He saw his son, Anthony, for the first time several months after the child was born when he was sent to Hawaii for R&R.
Of his experience in Vietnam, Harper said, "It was the best of a bad situation. We had a super group of great soldiers who made it like being with family."
Bob Lazevnick, 63, enlisted in the Army a month after his high school graduation in 1966. After a year at Fort Bragg, he volunteered to go to Vietnam. "I lost seven of my buddies there and it makes me sad to this day," he said. "They didn't get to do with their lives, whatever they had planned for themselves."
Charlotte native Kyle Shank, 29, spent five years in the Marines. He was in the ROTC program all four years at a Mecklenburg high school and joining the military was never in question. "My uncle was career army and my grandfather was in the Air National Guard," he said. "The only decision I faced was which branch of the military to join."
"My nephew is in the first grade here. I want him and the other kids to know that there are many ways to serve your country. The military is just another step up," said Shank. Currently working as a firefighter in Charlotte, he said, "The Marines and the fire department are both awesome. You understand how important it is to help each other out."
Retired Air Force Lt. Col. Jerry Snow, 67, has three grandchildren at Mountain Island. The school is on Lucia Riverbend Highway.
"Today will be the first time my grandchildren will see me in uniform," said Snow. A resident of Montgomery, Ala., he was born in Mount Airy and graduated from N.C. State. His experience in the university's ROTC program persuaded him to join the Air Force as an officer.
"I was part of the secret war in Laos," said Snow. "I flew C-123s and we bombed the hell out of the Ho Chi Minh Trail. My job was to map the location of truck convoys and call in fighters.
"I felt good, honorable, about what I was doing in the military. I want the kids to know that serving your country is never a wrong decision."
What was it like speaking to his grandson's class? "I got very emotional talking about Vietnam," said Snow, "especially thinking about the way the vets were treated when they came home."
Mountain Island communications manager Mary B. Smith points out that Celebrate Our Soldiers Day at the school is not merely a one-day event. "We try to promote the ideals of leadership and service throughout the curriculum all year long."
On this Veterans Day, those ideals were clearly exemplified by those men and women who put their lives on the line in service to their country.