AYER -- The Veterans Day program held at Ayer Shirley Regional High School Wednesday morning is an annual tradition that dates back over a decade, predating the two-town regional school district.
Long time high school teacher Steve Tulli launched the program 15 years ago to celebrate and honor local military veterans and active service men and women for their service and sacrifices. Then and now, it provides an opportunity for town and school officials, high staff and students and the community to say thank you.
This year's festivities began early, at Dan's Place in Ayer, where the guests of honor were treated to breakfast by restaurant owner Dan Civatrese. The next stop was the high school, where the guests were escorted to selected classrooms to meet students and share their stories. The program wrapped up with an all-school assembly in the auditorium.
Arikka Dumas, a junior, is in the Leadership Program Tulli started several years ago that concludes this year. Leadership President Jacob Drooker was helping to coordinate the Veterans Day program.
Meanwhile, in one of the classrooms, two active duty service men and a retired Army veteran spoke to students. Colin Bourne, Edward Scott Smith and Christopher Plonka talked about their experiences and answered students' questions about their jobs and military career opportunities.
Smith, of Shirley, is an Air Force veteran who served for 13 years. Bourne, an Ayer High School graduate, is a PFC in the Army. Lt. Col. Plonka is a meteorologist in the Massachusetts National Guard. Assigned to NATO during the civil war in Bosnia, he said he saw "mind boggling" destruction in the city of Sarajevo, which once hosted the Winter Olympics. "It was surreal," he said. After three years of civil war, based on religious differences and grudges dating back 2000 years, people there were isolated, hemmed-in and still under attack, he said. "We helped after the peace treaty was signed," he said.
Smith said his ambition when he joined the Army was to go into law enforcement. As a specialist and K-9 handler, his experience helped him achieve civilian goals, he said. Whether it becomes a career or not, the Army can provide on the job training, travel and a chance to meet people, he said.
The National Guard also offers its members the opportunity to continue their education with free tuition and fees to state colleges, Plonka said. Not books, but the GI bill can help pay for that, he said.
Bourne said the Army offers similar options, including housing allowances for college students and scholarships via the ROTC program. "You can even take classes" while on active duty, he said.
A roster of speakers took the podium during the all-school assembly that concluded the Veterans Day program, sharing the stage with about two dozen veterans, including Ayer Selectmen Chairman James Fay, who also spoke.
Besides Fay, other speakers included Superintendent Carl Mock, High School Principal Brian Haas, Page Hilltop Principal Fred Deppe, School Committee Chairman Pat Kelly, Town Administrator Robert Pontbriand, Shirley American Legion Post $183 Commander Lewis Criess and Steve Tulli, who urged students to use the upcoming no school day well. "Honor veterans in your own way by watching a documentary, reading an account of one's own service or visiting a veteran's home," he said.
Tulli said he would be spending the day with his dad, a WWII Battle of the Bulge veteran who just turned 90 years old.
Four empty chairs stood in front of the gathering on stage for four area veterans and former program participants who had passed away, with a moment of silence in their honor: Manny Velez, Preston Smith, Frank Belitsky and Harold Landry.
Several students gave speeches.
"What does Veterans Day mean to you?" Jacob Drooker asked. "To me, it not only symbolizes those who are here but others who have passed on and those who serve now, all of whom deserve "deep gratitude," he said.
Cayla Justice said that 50 million men and women have served in the U.S. military in times of war and peace. "They set aside their personal needs for the nation," she said, leaving family and friends so that "people can sleep peacefully in their beds at night."
Unlike Memorial Day, a solemn remembrance of those who died in service, Veterans Day - which began as Armistice Day - has a celebratory significance, marking the end of WWI in 1918 and honoring veterans "who are still us."
But one need not join the military to serve the country, he said. Service also includes serving the community, the schools. "We can all serve," he said, by standing up for each other, honoring each other and helping to make the community safer and more peaceful. "You are an important part of your community," he said. "Honor these veterans with service of your own."
Mock talked about his grandfather and his father, two veterans in his life. "These are the people I think of on Veterans Day," he said.
Student speaker Bennet Wilson, a freshman this year, said people tend to "take things for granted, including our freedom." "We pay attention...when a war starts," but the brave men and women who serve their country should be in our thoughts now, too. "I'm in awe," of them, he said. And we shouldn't wait for Veterans Day to honor them. "Say thank you now and then," he said.
Fifth-grader Jakob Roy is a student at Page Hilltop Elementary School. The person he most thinks of on Veterans Day is his brother, Joe, who joined the Army after graduating from high school last year.
Jakob traced his brother's footsteps from boot camp to Fort Jackson, where his family visited him after basic training. The base is "really cool," and has a museum, he said.
"He wanted to do something for his country," Jakob said of his brother. "He gained weight and got muscles," he said. And he learned how to do things "like protect the country."
Joe will be home for Christmas. "I can't wait to see him," Jakob said. "I miss him very much."