Gov. Steve Bullock and local school officials used Tuesday’s “Take a Veteran to School Day” assembly to say thank you.
When Shaun Harrington, principal at Castle Rock Middle School, announced that Todd Nevin had been named Montana Veterans of Foreign Wars Teacher of the Year, deafening applause lingered as students and staff clapped and clapped for him.
School staff said the crowd for the Castle Rock event numbered about 850, with 650 people in the bleachers, 100 in the band and 100 in the center area of the gym.
The 90-minute assembly received support from major players in Billings, including Charter Communications executive Kathy Groves, who said HISTORY (the History Channel) developed the national program specifically to link vets across the nation with students.
The students at Castle Rock exuded an energy exponentially greater than their sizes and ages. Applause roared throughout the gym as the band played popular and patriotic songs. Led by Tak Engle, the 80-piece band blared “We Got the Beat,” recorded originally by the Go-Go’s. The band also played the “Star Spangled Banner.”
A female Marine captain at the assembly, the smartly turned out Capt. Diane Salmela, 26, wore her hair tightly tied up in a braid behind the nape of her neck. Her immaculately pressed blue trousers with one bright red stripe down either side set her apart. She accelerated smoothly, yet snapped in precisely yet softly measured steps as she walked respectfully in front of the crowd to implore the audience for help for Toys for Tots.
From Cameron Park, Calif., Capt. Salmela said she was an inspector instructor for the 4th Law Enforcement Battalion Reserve in Billings. As she stepped in precisely rhythmic cadence over to the podium, Salmela embodied the military ideal of neatness, efficiency, confidence and contained power. Once there, she said her mission was to thank veterans and help needy kids.
One student, Whitney Wells, a 13-year-old eighth-grader, invited a veteran, Aaron Flint, 33, to the assembly with her family. Flint said he was a captain in the infantry branch of the Army National Guard and that he was honored to be included in the assembly.
Bonnie Wells, 41, Whitney’s mother, said she enjoyed the support displayed for the veterans in Billings. Whitney, who has played clarinet for four years, has now begun to study oboe.
Although Whitney said she did not want to be in the military, she said she fully supported the efforts of her nation’s military. Citing a fear of the sound of guns, Ms. Wells said she would not be a good candidate for military service.
She appeared to be thrilled with just the opportunity to invite a veteran to her school assembly and to hear Gov. Bullock speak.
Gov. Bullock said, “Montana is the No. 1 state for families to go overseas or away for military service. Today is ‘Take a Vet to School Day.’ The vets fought to make sure we’d be in good shape.”
Nicki Hoffman, vice principal, said, “Families’ sacrifices go unknown, single moms are all alone. We need to think of our family members in their own branch of service. Mrs. Kelly Smith’s husband is in Afghanistan with the Drug Enforcement Administration. One of her sons is a cadet at United States Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs and her other son is a cadet at the Merchant Marine Academy in King’s Point, N.Y.”
Superintendent Terry Bouck said, “There is one thing they can’t take away from you, and that is an education.” Bouck went on to say how proud he was of Gov. Bullock for enduring a dangerous journey to Afghanistan to visit troops stationed there. Then he introduced the VFW Teacher of the Year, Mr. Nevin.
The only faculty member wearing a black “Prisoner of War – Missing in Action – We Will Never Forget You” tie, Mr. Nevin appeared overwhelmed by emotion. He struggled to catch his breath, fought back tears and, after what seemed like several minutes, finally gained enough composure to address the audience.
“We must constantly remind the veterans of our appreciation for their service,” he said. “Please join me in thanking all our veterans.” Quoting John F. Kennedy, Mr. Nevin said, “The highest appreciation is not to utter words, but to live them.”