AYER/SHIRLEY -- Ayer-Shirley Regional Middle School 21st Century Literacy teacher Annie Stahl had a special guest visit her sixth-grade classroom last Thursday.
"I was 1,000 feet up in the air," said David King, a 21-year veteran of the United States Army. "Suddenly, the door gunner started shooting. I was very green and didn't know what was going on."
King had been in Vietnam for just one week, deployed on Christmas Eve 1968.
He said he saw the green tracer bullets, which represent just one in five, and before he knew what had hit him, his helicopter was shot down. Miraculously, the pilot managed to crash land with everyone getting out safely.
"Welcome to Vietnam," he said.
As Mrs. Stahl's students listened intently, King went on to tell three more harrowing tales of near misses during his year serving in Vietnam.
"Ask Mrs. Stahl," he stated. "I've got nine lives."
Not only does he have nine lives, but he also has two daughters, and one of them is Mrs. Stahl.
"None of this falls under the heading of 'hero,'" King explained after relaying how he almost detonated a mine, was nearly killed during an ambush, and was on another helicopter that made an emergency landing after it ran out of fuel. "It just goes under the heading of doing my job."
A Fitting Tribute
A total of 18 veterans from Ayer, Shirley and Devens arrived as early as 7:30 in the morning that day to participate in the middle school's Veterans Day program.
During the assembly in the auditorium, the students watched a short video on the history of Veterans Day and were greeted by their Principal, Rich McGrath, himself an Army vet.
"We take the time to really thank and honor all who serve and have served in the Armed Forces," he said. "We have them to thank for having the United States as it is today.
"Over the next few days, if you see a veteran, take the time to say 'thank you.'"
Student Jared Magno led the Pledge of Allegiance, and Fiona Kelly and Chris Govang introduced the seventh- and eighth-grade band. As the band played a service song medley, veterans, family and friends took turns standing up for their branches of the armed forces.
Shirley Post 183 Chaplain Charles Church presented McGrath with a special award for his commitment to honoring veterans, and Shirley Police Sergeant Alfreda Cromwell introduced a special flag-folding ceremony conducted by students Iziah Ferguson and Troy Mitchell.
As Cromwell attributed a different meaning for each fold, the young men solemnly folded the flag into a triangular pillow with only the blue-starred field showing on the outside.
Cromwell then saluted the two young men and addressed the audience.
"Student cadets, on your feet!," she commanded. As the entire student body stood, Cromwell instructed them to apply a cover, or hat. The students obliged.
"Present arms!" she shouted, as the students saluted. "Mr. John Clifford, also known as Mr. Cliff, front and center!" she continued. With that, Clifford, a U.S. Navy veteran who helps supervise lunch and recess and serves as a substitute teacher in the school, stepped forward.
"Thank you for your service and protecting our country, the U.S.A.," said Ferguson, as the two boys presented Clifford with the freshly folded flag. Filled with emotion, Clifford thanked them for the special gift and was given a standing ovation.
After the school chorus sang a rousing rendition of "Those Who Served," students Conrad Dougherty and Noelle Wood read their original essays on the meaning of Veterans Day.
"Imagine, you wake up on the cold, hard ground with a small hut roof over your head," began Wood, as she contrasted the life of those less fortunate with the life of a typical student in her school.
"You have all these privileges and freedom, and it's just so amazing what we have here," she said. "You have all these rights because of the people from the past, our veterans."
"Thank you, veterans, for all you've done to serve and honor our country. Now today, we honor you," she concluded.
Special guest Jacob Drooker, an Ayer-Shirley Regional High School junior, also spoke. Drooker has participated in the Massachusetts National Guard Leadership Education program since he was in seventh grade. The program, he said, has taught him about the qualities of a leader -- responsibility, honor, selfless service, loyalty and duty. He plans to join the military after high school.
Student Nicole Patano then introduced a moment of silence and the playing of taps by students Jacques Crawford and Jason Langlais, Jr.
"Every year, our ceremony gets better because students better understand what Veterans Day is all about," stated McGrath, before thanking vice principal Berta Aikey, band director Rachel Fletcher, chorus director Marianne Cooper and Sgt. Cromwell for putting the program together.
After the ceremony, the veterans lined up outside the auditorium to shake hands with students and staff, and many visited with them in their classrooms.