A young student from Rio Hondo School in Los Angeles County looks over a display at Thursday's special event to honor veterans. (Photo by Jeff Stoffer)

‘What Veterans Day stands for’

Matthew Aldrete, 22, served one combat tour in Afghanistan for the U.S. Army before he got his discharge three weeks ago. He is the fourth generation of soldiers in his family. He came home to the northeastern Los Angeles County city of El Monte and has begun the process of transitioning to civilian life.

Part of that process included crossing the street to Rio Hondo School, where he was an elementary student when the war in Afghanistan began, on Thursday for a special Veterans Day program supported by American Legion posts in the area. There, the young veteran received thanks and appreciation from hundreds of schoolchildren and their families who gathered for the morning long commemoration on the playground of the school. The schoolchildren spent weeks preparing the program.

"I didn’t see it as much when I came to school here," Aldrete said of the reception. "I never really recognized veterans like this when I was young. I’m happy it’s happening."

Aldrete joined over a dozen other local veterans who received appreciation from the schoolchildren on Thursday, including Bill Thomas who spent 565 continuous days as an artillery man in combat during World War II, along with several veterans who served during the Vietnam War and the more recent U.S. military actions. The assembly included tributes to two U.S. flags from Rio Hondo that were used in combat during the war. Students presented skits, read their words of honor for veterans, performed patriotic music and handed personal letters of gratitude to all veterans in attendance. The schoolyard was lined with displays, photos, flags and posters expressing what Veterans Day means to them. Included were five framed 8-by-10 photos of men and women from the El Monte school district who gave their lives serving their country since the war on terrorism began.

"The important thing is the kids need to know what Veterans Day stands for," said former Rio Hondo School principal Lance Lawson, who started the commemoration 10 years ago. "It was very simple in the beginning. The kids always got the 11th of November off every year, and they never really knew why. I wanted them to know why."

History teacher Ron Lenggiere, the son of a World War II veteran, said the commemoration "started small, but it grew when we started inviting veterans."

The school and American Legion posts in the area soon made connections and, says current principal Brian Bettger, "It’s gotten bigger and bigger and bigger. It’s a very valued program. It’s part of the education of young people to recognize the sacrifices of real heroes."

Student body president Tais Manzano, a 12-year-old eighth grader, said students "practiced and practiced" in advance of the program, which included historical reports on the origins of Veterans Day and of Taps. "I’m learning a lot," she said. "It means a lot because so many have served our country and never gets a word of thanks. It means a lot to have veterans here to share their experiences with us."

In attendance at the event was one non-veteran with a deep appreciation of The American Legion: Andre Quintero, mayor of the 113,000-population city of El Monte. His understanding of veterans and service was his participation in American Legion Boys State and Boys Nation. "It completely changed the direction and course of my life," he said of the high-school American Legion program that taught him the democratic process and how government works. "It was through The American Legion that I got exposed to veterans and became educated about service. I think it is critical that The American Legion continues to do that to be relevant to the next generations. This is one example of how service doesn’t end at the battlefield."

That was, in part, the message John Aldrete was trying to send to his newly discharged son Thursday when he encouraged him to attend the event at Rio Hondo School. "I wanted to bring him here so he could see where he fits in," John said of his son, who is planning to use his GI Bill benefits to pursue an education at Humboldt State University in Arcata, Calif. "I wanted him to feel he is recognized; this is part of coming home. He’s doing fine."