JOHNS CREEK, Ga.-Don Hart had never had anyone ask for his autograph. So on Thursday morning he seemed surprised when three young students with wide eyes and big smiles surrounded him and asked him to sign a small poster bordered with a red, white, and blue banner.
"I don't know why they wanted my autograph," he said with a chuckle. "I'm just a regular veteran."
Hart, 71, might not think of himself as a celebrity, but to the students at Perimeter School, a private Christian school just north of Atlanta, he was something better-a hero.
The former radarman-who served on the destroyer USS Orleck during the Vietnam War-was one of about 100 veterans and a few service members still on active duty honored at the school's 17th annual Veterans Day program. The community-wide event drew some 2,000 students, teachers, and local residents who gathered to celebrate just a handful of the thousands of veterans who have served the United States for decades.
It was Hart's first time attending the event, and he was impressed. "The children are getting a chance to see that a lot of these people paid a really, really big price," he said. "We want them to know what it cost."
The students, from first to eighth grade, spend weeks preparing for the day-writing essays, painting posters, practicing patriotic songs, and thinking of questions to ask the veterans who spend the afternoon visiting their classrooms.
Eli Roache, 9, said he liked having a chance to celebrate what the veterans have done for their country. He liked hearing their stories, even though some did not have happy endings. "Some of them have seen their best friends die right in front of them," he said.
Roache and his fourth grade classmates had a chance to learn a little more about the modern military from Pvt. Caleb Johnson, a Marine less than a week out of boot camp. Balancing his white hat on his knee, Johnson sat at the front of the classroom and answered questions about his training, his future deployments, and the fear unleashed by drill sergeants. They really are as terrifying as they appear in movies, Johnson assured the students. Before he left, the students prayed for Johnson, asking God to keep him safe.
In the seventh grade class taught by Dave Boy, Vietnam veteran Tom Brendle told the students they had a real hero in their midst every day. Boy flew fighter jets for the Navy, which Brendle assured the students that it was one of the most dangerous jobs in the service.
Surrounded by five other veterans, several of whom had grandchildren in the class, Brendle choked up a bit when he talked about the importance of his faith during his time in battle. He had only been a captain for a few weeks when his commanding officer assigned him to lead a battery whose previous leader had just died after stepping on a land mine.
Brendle told the students he prayed fervently that first night that God would help him bring all of his men home safely. The company endured nine months of shelling, mortar attacks, and bombing runs, and not one of the 100 men was wounded. "The Lord protected Charlie battery," he said, fighting back tears.
Bobby Scott, the school's headmaster, said meeting so many veterans and service members from so many different conflicts helped the students understand the reality of the things they read about in their history classes. "This gives them an opportunity to say thank you in a tangible, real way," he said.
Before the event, held this year on the day before Veterans Day, each of Perimeter's 583 students wrote a personal letter of thanks to the veterans, who picked them up as they left the auditorium.
The program started as one third-grade teacher's classroom project. The students enjoyed it so much that administrators decided to make it a school-wide event. Seventeen years later, it has become one of the school's biggest annual celebrations. Almost all of the audience members raised their hands when asked whether they knew someone who had served or was serving in the military.
During the program, guess speaker Col. Bobby Little challenged his listeners to reach out to other veterans they might know who deserved to be recognized. "We can't do enough to extend our gratitude for all they've done for us," he said.
As the fourth grade students sang a medley of songs representing each branch of the military, the servicemen, and a few servicewomen, stood and were recognized.
Scott urged his students to honor the veterans' sacrifice and the vital role they played in supporting freedom. "This weekend, thousands will go to football games and concerts to be in the presence of people they think are heroes," he said. "I would question that. The true heroes are those who are here with us today."
Leigh Jones is the editor of WORLD on Campus.