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Veterans share stories of service and sacrifice with students

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Military life isn’t easy, but the sacrifice is worth it. That was the general message conveyed by local veterans at a special ceremony held in their honor last Friday at South Side Middle School. About a dozen veterans took to the stage in the school’s auditorium to speak to students on Nov. 8, sharing their stories of how they joined the military, what their experience was like and how it impacted their lives.

“We want to show our appreciation for the men and women who fought for our freedom,” said social studies teacher Michael Flynn. Each of the visiting veterans had a connection to the middle school, either through a student or a staff member. Flynn introduced the speakers and thanked them for their service.

Brian Ellwood said that, as the youngest of nine children, there was no college savings fund for him, so going to college either meant taking out loans or finding another way to succeed. So, he joined the Reserve Officers Training Corp. “I thought that service could really benefit me in the long run,” Ellwood said. “I knew it could teach me how to be more organized. You come out of college and are expected to lead.”

When he graduated, he became an officer. His unit was already deployed to Iraq, and his company had been at a base there for at least a month when he showed up as the officer in charge, which he said was his biggest challenge. “It’s an overwhelming experience, but for me, it’s the defining moment of the rest of my life,” Ellwood said. “It taught me how to teach and learn and work with people. My five years in the military were priceless — the best times of my life professionally, because I got to work with people from all over the United States. I learned the value of being a leader and what’s important in life.”

Ellwood shared a story about the birth of his daughter, Hayley. He had been home for a year and had to deploy for a year just four days after she was born. “That taught me what my priorities are — it’s family,” Ellwood said. “One thing we forget about is what the military life does to families. When you look back, it’s your family who gets you through it.”

Christopher McManus joined the U.S. Marine Corps in June 2001. “It was one of the best decisions I ever made,” he said.

He shared how difficult the first 10 weeks of training were, on physical, mental and emotional levels, and that he almost failed the training in the first week. But he stuck it out. “The military is a great opportunity, a great place to learn about your inner self,” McManus said. “There’s the leadership that goes into it, the commitment that goes into it, that’s what it’s all about.”

Navy veteran James Loud said he cherished the 20 years he spent in the military, which allowed him to see the world and live in Sicily and Iceland, among other places. “The whole experience was great,” Loud said. “I retired in 2003, and looking back, I don’t regret one minute of it.”

Veterans Michael O’Leary and John McAteer both served in the Vietnam War, noting that it was an unpopular war. O’Leary said that veterans weren’t treated well after their return. He said he was pleased to see that things have changed, and that there are more services available now.

McAteer remembered how he was unhappy to get the call to serve, because he had just graduated from college and was starting his career. “But this is a great country,” he said, “and when we get called to serve, we serve.”

The toughest part, he said, was being away from his family during the holidays. “But when it’s all said and done,” McAteer said, “it’s well worth it, and this country deserves our service.”

Army veteran Robert Kipp said he knew he wanted to serve at age 12 during the Persian Gulf War. Kipp was in the Army for seven years, including two tours in Iraq with the Fourth Infantry Division in 2003-04 and 2005-06, and he left as a captain. He was awarded the Bronze Star Medal, the Army Commendation Medal with three bronze oak leaf clusters, the Army Achievement Medal with bronze oak leaf cluster, the Combat Action Badge and the Parachutist Badge. During that time, he said, “I gained a lot of understanding of myself to grow as a leader, to grow as an individual.”

He told the students that there would come a time when they would be asked to serve in the future.

“It will be incumbent on you to determine how you’re going to serve,” Kipp said. “Military service is not for everyone; it requires a lot of fortitude, a lot of smarts and a lot of hard work. But everybody has the capacity to serve in some way, shape or form.”