American Legion Post 68 Commander Richard Johnson regularly travels the trails of the Spanish Fork Sports Park in Spanish Fork, Utah, either on a bicycle or walking them with his wife.
It was on the trails that Johnson got an idea on how to bring local youth together with area veterans, an idea that has turned into what has become an annual event over the past three years.
Post 68’s Freedom Walk brings together veterans from both the post and the surrounding area, community leaders and approximately 1,300 Nebo School District elementary students for two days of interaction between the students and the veterans.
Johnson envisioned veterans along the trails talking with students to learn about military service, sacrifice and patriotism. Johnson took the idea both to his post and to Nebo School District leadership, where the groups “kind of coordinated the event to what we wanted. We worked through the logistics, everybody put in their two cents, decided ‘this is a good event,’ and we’ve being doing it now for three years. And every year we do it we pick up more support and determination that this is something we would like to see happen in the community every year.”
Veterans from every branch of the military man stations along pathways lined with U.S. flags. At each station students learn about what it was like to serve in the military and about U.S. military history. Students also were tasked with researching a veteran and turned that research into posters placed on plastic banners that lined a park fence as a “Wall of Honor.”
The day is closed out with a hearse contained a flag-draped casket, while an honor guard delivers military burial honors, including the folding of the flag. There also is a replica of Flanders Field set up in the park.
Three years ago the Spanish Fork Chamber of Commerce earmarked a grant to help cover the cost of providing t-shirts and dog tags to the elementary students who attend the freedom walk. Students submit t-shirt designs; the design for the shirt is chosen from those submissions by area veterans.
Johnson said after the event’s first year, “I didn’t know if we’d ever have it again. The weather was terrible. We had snow and sleet. But the kids still had a good time. We tried it again the second year and we had beautiful spring days.”
Johnson said watching the students interact with the veterans is a highlight of the event. “It’s amazing to see the kids stop at each one of those stations, visiting with the veterans … and hearing them tell about their experiences – what they did in Vietnam, Korea or wherever it was,” he said. “How attentive those kids are. And when we do the military honors part of our program, they’re pretty solemn. The kids come up and thank you for your service. To me, they’ve learned a lot in the four or five hours they’ve spent with us.”
But the veterans also get something out of the day. “They’ve found it to be very rewarding for them,” Johnson said, referencing one Vietnam veteran who talked about the negative experience he received when he came home from the war. “There was no warm homecoming or welcome home from that. This has kind of brought about a whole different celebration of that service.”
Turning his concept into an actual event was important to Johnson. “School programs have taken us away to where we don’t have the opening exercises at school of saying the Pledge of Allegiance … and the national anthem – a lot of those things that we did when I was a young boy,” he said. “They kind of skim over a lot of what it means to be an American citizen and the sacrifices that were made for them to enjoy the freedoms that they enjoy in this country.
“To me, every opportunity we have of interacting and letting young people know those freedoms didn’t just happen … I think makes better citizens. I think we need to help the young people see that every opportunity we get.”
To watch video from the 2018 Freedom Walk, click here.
To watch video from the 2019 Freedom Walk, click here.