Normally, North Surry High School JROTC cadets spend the day at the Mount Airy Veterans Day Parade and are involved in a flag-folding ceremony at the local memorial downtown.
This year was different.
“For nine straight years we have spent Veterans Day involved with the celebration in downtown Mount Airy. This year I wanted to expose these young students to a more personal experience,” said Col. John Bowes, instructor of the North Surry JROTC.
As part of that effort, students first visited W. G. (Bill) Hefner VA Medical Center in Salisbury. There are special programs and tributes going on at the center. While many vets reside in the hospital because of health issues, many others return on this day to take part in the celebrations and to be with fellow soldiers.
Bowes and First Sgt. Ken Goetzke estimated that their cadets individually made more than 900 personal connections with veterans at the VA hospital. When cadets first arrived, retired Army Master Sergeant John Moore briefed the students on what to expect when visiting the veterans.
Cadet Commander Major and Senior North Surry Student Brandon Noonkester said that some of the veterans were in bad shape, but as Goetzke, Bowes and Noonkester all agreed, many of the veterans were in good shape, especially mentally and wanted to share their stories.
“They would say I am so proud of you for wearing that uniform. You are our future. That really warmed my heart and made me proud when they told us this,” Noonkester said.
The students met veterans of all ages and from various wars. They met a WWII veteran who was about to turn 100 years old. They spoke with a Vietnam veteran who was confined to his bed because he had lost the use of his legs. Goetzke shared a story of the cadets meeting a veteran that showed them a coin from a most famous general.
“This gentleman had served under General (George) Patton. He took his coin out of his pocket and let the students see it. He was so proud,” said Goetzke.
After the trip to the VA Hospital, they went on to Concord and were treated to a night at the Great Wolf Lodge. Col. Bowes said that this was a chance for students to build comradely, practice leadership skills, and do some team building.
On Sunday, students went to the War Birds Over Monroe Airshow. The highlight of this airshow was the finale when there was a re-enactment of the attack on Pearl Harbor with pyrotechnics. Actual refurbished planes from this era, Japanese Zero and Torpedo Bombers, fly in and attack.
“If the students stop, close their eyes, they can actually feel, hear and smell what it was like to be there in Pearl Harbor during the attack,” Bowes said. “The imagery of the attack is amazing and was created through the planes, black smoke and huge explosion from which students could feel the heat.”
Noonkester stated that his favorite part of the trip was a WWI and WWII Field Museum set up at the airshow.
“People were dressed in uniforms from this time period. You could handle the weapons and equipment used during these wars. I would ask one of the people a question about an item and they would end up telling me a story. They were so knowledgeable.”
Bowes summed it all by saying that this was a wonderful experience for this group of young people. “They got a chance to have fun as a corps and learn more about the people who have kept the freedom in America alive.”