When Shawn Miller enlisted in the Army in November 1999, the idea of going to war seemed like a distant thought. That all changed during the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.
“I didn’t know what to think,” said the 35-year-old father of three about that day. “I was kind of emotional. That right there is when my true patriotism came out.”
Miller went on to serve two tours in Iraq. The staff sergeant currently serves as the assistant center commander of the Cheektowaga Army Career Center. He was at Alden High School Friday morning for the second annual “Take a Veteran to School Day.”
The school event, just days before Veterans Day, honors veterans past and present. While commended for his own service during the Assembly of Appreciation,
Miller was there for another reason. “I wanted to thank the veterans before me for paving the way so I could serve my obligation to the country,” he said. “I can’t do what I’m doing without their sacrifice.”
The program that brought Miller and 40 other veterans to Alden High was born out of a desire to teach students about the real reasons behind Veterans Day, said social studies teacher Jamie Williams.
“We wanted to, as a school, honor these veterans for Veterans Day,” she said. “We want students to know that their freedoms and rights were bought by sacrifice and that these are the men and women who sacrificed for them. It’s a face to Veterans Day, and not just a Monday off in November.”
Students from the high school were encouraged to invite family members who have served in the military, and the Social Studies Department reached out to local veterans as well, Williams said.
The program opened with music by the school band, the singing of the national anthem and the Pledge of Allegiance. Several art students created a painting of a bald eagle using a technique called “paint jamming” on stage.
The veterans in attendance each had their name and the branch of the military they served in read aloud, while a nearly packed auditorium stood to honor them.
David Bellavia, a veteran of the Iraq War and Silver Medal recipient for his role during the Second Battle of Fallujah, delivered the keynote address.
“Serving the country during a time of war is the greatest honor a veteran can have,” he said. “Veterans are the greatest citizens you can have living in your neighborhood.”
A reception was held for the veterans after the assembly.
John Hawley, a 95-year-old veteran of World War II, came to the school with his grandson, Rob Hawley, a substitute teacher for the Alden Central School District.
Although in the Army, Hawley manned a .50 caliber machine gun on a Navy ship as it made its way to Melbourne, Australia, to drop off troops and supplies.
“The Navy didn’t have enough personnel at the time,” he said. “They were using Army men to man the guns.”
Subsequently, Hawley found himself in San Francisco for the rest of the war, patrolling the docks there and driving a truck. After the war, he eventually found his way to Alden.
He appreciates what the school did for the local veterans.
“It was really nice,” he said.