New Paltz Middle School student Jordan Nagel speaks at Monday's Memorial Day Education Program. Pictured in the background (L-R):are Director of Ulster County Veterans Services Agency Captain Steven Massee, WWII Submarine Vet Matt Schmitz, Commander of the New Paltz VFW 8645 Dave Deyo, Vietnam Vet Ronald Mironchik and David Finch of the New Paltz Middle School. (Lauren Thomas)

It was a somber and moving occasion as local veterans and school children who had relatives who had served or are serving in foreign wars told their stories in honor of Memorial Day at the New Paltz Middle School (NPMS) this past Monday. Four sixth-grade student speakers took their turns at the microphone to share their personal accounts. “When my cousin Jonathan returned from serving in Afghanistan, I noticed that whenever there was a loud noise he would jump or take cover. While he served in Afghanistan, he was surrounded by the sounds of bombs going off all around him. I was nervous about giving this speech, but my cousin has given me the courage,” said Olivia Johnson.

Then Logan Davis, another NPMS sixth-grade student, stood up in front of his peers, teachers, administrators, veterans, dignitaries and emergency service workers and told his story. “My father is an Iraq War combat veteran,” said Davis. “He went to Ground Zero to help his country when I was only one year old.” He explained that his father was sent overseas to the War in Iraq, where he served in Baghdad and other Iraqi cities and “had several of his friends injured. Two were killed.” His father was injured, and the first time that Logan saw him since he was a baby was when he went to visit him at the Walter Reed Medical Center. “I didn’t see my father for seven years because he was fighting for our country,” he said. The room was silent. Then the chorus, led by music teacher Scott Milici, sang a beautifully haunting version of “Land that We Love.”

NPMS principal Dr. Richard Wiesenthal thanked Charlie Seymour, the band director, for developing “this program,” where students are taught and experience the true meaning of Memorial Day. “I’ve been working in education for 35 years, and 23 years here at the New Paltz Middle School,” said Wiesenthal. “This program came from Mr. Seymour’s mind. This was his idea, and it gets better and more touching every year. He wanted our students to have some pride and understanding and sense of what Memorial Day means, and I wanted to thank him for that.”

The principal went on to note that when he Googled Memorial Day, the “first 30 entries had nothing to do with the meaning of Memorial Day. What do you think they had to do with?” he asked the sixth-grade students. One said, “The opening of a public pool?” Another, “National Barbecue Day?” And still another, “Advertisements?”

“You’re all right,” said Wiesenthal. “The first 30 hits had Best Buy Memorial Day Sale advertisements, and any number of things that had nothing to do with the meaning of this day. If I were the president of Google, I would make sure that the very first thing to appear would be a true definition of Memorial Day. It’s pathetic to see what comes up.”

He went on to say that in his estimation, the meaning of Memorial Day had “expanded throughout the years. It involves all of our heroes: those who’ve served in war, those who are still serving in wars for our country, our emergency service providers who are here with us today. Those are our local heroes: the members of the New Paltz Fire Department and Police Department and Rescue Squad.”

Wiesenthal noted that his father, now 88, had served in World War II as a captain in the Marine Corps in the South Pacific. “He doesn’t talk about that time much, but I know he was just a poor kid from the Bronx who was enlisted into the Army when he was 17 and ended up playing a big role in the South Pacific. The fewer of these men and women that there are, the less we’ll know. And I ask you all to talk about Memorial Day with at least three people today. Can you do that? That’s your start towards becoming a hero.”

With that, Rod Dressel Sr., a board member of the New Paltz Rural Cemetery, was asked to speak a few words on behalf of Seymour. “The New Paltz Rural Cemetery has always been privileged to host this event. We prepared for it, but unfortunately could not have it there this year due to the weather,” said the farmer, who is no stranger to the weather throwing its wild dice. He went on to thank the band director for “the past 12 years you’ve organized this event, imparted the seriousness that we all need to demonstrate towards our veterans, our family and our loved ones. You have taught so many students and their family members and friends to be sure to take a few moments, a few quiet moments, to honor those who have died fighting for our country, those that have been wounded, those that are still serving. We know you are retiring this year, and we wanted to present you with a symbol of our appreciation for all that you have done.” With that, members of the local Veterans of Foreign Wars ceremoniously folded an American flag and presented it to Seymour.

“There are very few occasions in one’s life where you know you will remember it forever, and this is one of them,” said the band director. “I’m very proud of our sixth-grade students — this year’s students, those from the past several years — because when you go to Boston on your school field trip, or to Washington, DC, and you walk through the Holocaust Museum, through the Arlington Cemetery, visit the Vietnam Memorial Wall, you will know how to act, how to behave, how to understand as you have done today. And for that, I am so grateful and so proud.” ++