Jean Ridley, 88, pulled himself to his feet and received thunderous applause. He and a handful of other military veterans were guests of honor last week during a tribute at St. Pius X School in Portland.
Ridley flew B-24 bombers over Europe during World War II, hitting bridges and other strategic enemy sites. The only surviving member of his unit, he came to St. Pius at the behest of great-granddaughter Bella Simas, a first grader. A resident of Livermore, Calif., he misses his war buddies, who came from all over the American map.
That's just the kind of story Mary Thompson, the principal, wants her students to hear about the 24 million living veterans in the nation.
"All of these men and women answered the call to defend our freedom, whenever and wherever it was threatened," Thompson told the children. If you appreciate freedom of religion or freedom of the press, don't thank a preacher or a reporter, she said. Thank a veteran.
"Many who left never return," Thompson said somberly.
Three students read poems about soldiers and everyone had a chance to look over some military hardware brought in by the Air Force 125th Special Tactics Squadron at Portland Air Base.
Air Force Lt. Col. Anthony Capobianco, squadron commander, told students about his grandfather, a World War II Navy veteran who survived a kamikaze attack on the USS Ticonderoga, an aircraft carrier. The young sailor's best friend did not survive. Capobianco also told the stories of a Vietnam-era flying ace and Air Force Staff Sgt. Robert Gutierrez, who in 2009 continued directing air support for his fellow soldiers during a firefight with the Afghani Taliban, despite having taken a bullet in the chest that collapsed his lung. Guterriez is about to be posted to Portland.
"Heroics and selflessness extend beyond generations," Capobianco said.
Steve Volk, a St. Pius parent and veteran of 24 years in the Air Force, organized the event.
"A simple thank you to a vet means so much," Volk said. "This event in one big thank you. These moments are what keeps you going at your darkest hour."
Students assembled dozens of care packages to be sent to troops in Afghanistan, including a handful of members of the 125th Special Tactics Squadron.