SOUTH PLAINFIELD - The South Plainfield Middle School held their annual Veterans Day assembly on the morning of Nov. 6.  Patriotic songs performed by the chorus, orchestra and band, along with moving speeches and a video tribute highlighting each arm of the military, illustrated the true meaning of Veterans Day for those who attended.  

“We are free, but freedom comes at a price,” said Principal Leo Whalen.  “Having assemblies such as this shows the students and all who attend that our way of life is not just something that happened, people fought and lost their lives for us to be able to have this freedom.”

Veterans who attended the event say the service is something they look forward to each year.

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“I thought this was fantastic,” said Joe Sacco, Sergeant in the Army.   “I come every year.  My grandchildren are in school here.  They do a nice job.  It’s important for the children to understand the sacrifices that were made.”

“We’re here every year and it’s a wonderful program,” said J. Jake Martinez, who served as First Petty Officer Third Class in Vietnam and has been a member of the VFW and American Legion for almost 40 years.  “The kids are great and the teachers make sure that they remember, which is a wonderful thing.” 

History Teacher Joseph Blondo organized the event to make sure those who served our country are honored and their stories told.

“Former President and World War II Navy veteran John F. Kennedy said, ‘A nation reveals itself not only by the men it produces, but also by the men it honors, the men it remembers,’” said Blondo.  “I think it is important to honor and remember the sacrifice and service given by our veterans.  Everything we hold dear as a nation is in no small part thanks to those who have worn our nation’s uniform.” 

Students in the band, chorus and orchestra took their places on the stage and on risers before the stage as Middle School Vice Principal Kelly Richkus opened the service.

“Good morning, welcome to our South Plainfield Middle School’s Veterans Day Assembly,” said Richkus.  “I ask that everyone please rise and remain standing as we give a very warm welcome to our special guests, our veterans.”

Veterans entered the auditorium as everyone stood to cheer and applaud.  The “Star Spangled Banner” was then performed by Eighth Grade Orchestra, followed by “God Bless America,” sung by the Middle School Chorus.  

Richkus introduced the distinguished guests who had joined them, including Superintendent of Schools Dr. Noreen Lishak, Director of Grants and Math Anu Garrison, Board of Education member Debbie Boyle, and several local veterans, including: Robert Bengivenga (Army), John DeAndrea (Navy), Richard Doerr (Army), Jake Martinez (Navy), Joseph Sacco (Army), Richard Tarn (Army) and Joseph Vella (Navy).

Before they began, the students of the Middle School Band took a moment to thank veterans for their service.  They then played two patriotic musical sections of "March on America," a medley of musical American pride. 

“I want to take a moment to thank Mr. Blondo for putting together a beautiful ceremony to help us honor our vets,” said Richkus.  “None of this would have happened without him.”

Richkus then introduced the school's principal.

“Thank you for being here today to honor our veterans,” said Whalen.  “We pay tribute to all those who have served.  Veterans Day is a day intended to thank veterans for their service, to acknowledge that their contributions to our national security is appreciated."

"Veterans Day began as Amnesty Day," said Whalen.  "It started off as a celebration of the peace following the conflict in World War I.  In the following years, it evolved into Veterans Day, a day for those who have served and now serve in uniform as well as those who died in service to our country.”

Whalen explained the important purpose of Veterans Day as it honors veterans for the choice they made to serve the country, stressing the importance of thanking veterans on November 11th and every day for the sacrifices they made in order for our country to be free.  

Whalen told the children how he is a volunteer firefighter in North Brunswick.  Explaining how uplifting it is for him to receive a simple thank you from a resident for his service to the town, he shared with the students how important it is to express their gratitude for the veterans.

“It only takes a second to thank somebody for what they have done, and it only takes that short second to make someone feel good,” said Whalen.  “For our veterans here today, thank you for the service and the sacrifice that you have given.  For everyone else, not in the military, thank you for choosing to share this special day to show your support to honor our heroes of the past and the present.”

Blondo was asked up to the podium to address the assembly.

“Traditionally, Veterans Day is recognized on November 11th, originally to commemorate the ending of the first World War,” said Blondo.  “Patriotic organizations like the Veterans of Foreign War, Amercan Legion and the Elks Lodge are very active in remembering those who have worn our nation’s uniform in ceremonies and parades.  It is for that reason that we are choosing the honor and pay tribute to the brave men and women who have served in our nation’s armed forces.”

Blondo went on to explain that many veterans serve in combat while others have stood watch in times of peace, but that they are all heroes because they share the same attribute of sacrifice.  Blondo explained how these brave Americans put the needs of others above their own personal wants and desires, adding that their friends and family, spouses and children all sacrificed together.  

“We are so fortunate to be able to live in a country where men and women are willing to sign a blank check payable to the American people for, ultimately, their lives, so that we can all enjoy the freedoms that they defend,” said Blondo.  “A long time ago, farmers, blacksmiths and shop keeps were willing to risk their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor in order to defend justice and establish a nation where all men are created equal.”  

“We may not have always lived up to that creed, but every generation of Americans since the shot heard round the world have stood up and stepped forward to protect that government of the people, by the people and for the people,” added Blondo.   “Men and women continue to serve in harms way, in far off distant lands and sunny tropic seas, we should remember their service and sacrifice every day.”

Attention was directed to a screen in the back of the auditorium for a video presentation dedicated to those who served, focused on honoring each branch of the military.

After the presentation, 98-year-old Veteran Joseph Vella addressed the children.  

“Good morning everyone,” said Vella.  “My name is Joe Vella and I’m a World War II United States Navy combat veteran.  I killed Japanese.  I drop that on you to give you a feeling of the grim circumstances that we had to face in combat.”

Vella told the story of the reality of combat as he recounted the brutality of his experiences in combat serving as a Chief Petty officer in the Navy fighting with the fleet in the Okinawa Gunto Campaign, Eniwetok and Saipan.  

Everyone stood to applaud as Vella was escorted back to his seat among the row of local heroes.   

“Thank you again, thank you, Veterans!” said Richkus.  “Thank you so much for speaking to us as true heroes.  We deeply appreciate your time and your dedication to our country and to South Plainfield Middle School.  Thank you for always joining us.”

The ceremony came to a close as veterans left with smiles and pride in the youth of the country they fought to protect and defend.

"I think it was very meaningful at the end when the veteran, Joe Vella, got up to speak talking about the experiences," said Whalen.  "The truth of the experiences that he shared with the kids was very impactful.  Those messages need to be brought out, not just to the students, but in general and the purpose of the day."  

“If only one student develops a deeper appreciation for our veterans than I feel the assembly was a success,” said Blondo.  “Patriotism and respect are qualities that are and should be taught at home….We just reinforce them with our assemblies.”  

The band played as students left the auditorium to resume their day, wearing their country's colors of red, white and blue, as the feelings of pride and patriotism lingered in the air.

"This was a wonderful event," added Whalen.  "The kids were very receptive to the presentation and the purpose of this day.  Mr. Blondo put so much into this assembly along with the student council.  The program was put together and the students of the music program performed.  The video tribute was incredible.  All around, I was very impressed."