DANVILLE - A partnership that started in November between Tri-Valley Middle School students and veterans from the VA hospital in Danville has grown into genuine friendship.
About 35 fifth-, seventh- and eighth-graders from the Downs school took a 75-mile bus trip Monday to bring music and conversation to residents and patients at the VA Illiana Health Care System. Together, they recognized the 40th anniversary of the signing of the 1973 Paris Peace Accords and cease-fire that led to the end of the Vietnam War.
“It was a tear-jerker,” said Thomas McDermott of Pontiac, a Persian Gulf veteran who watched as 50 Vietnam veterans were recognized by name and applauded for their service. Each veteran waved an arm, many sitting in wheelchairs, as his or her name was called.
“My grandfather served in Vietnam,” said Katelyn O’Rourke, 14, of Downs. “They know what he’s been through.”
“They were excited to see us. They were very talkative,” added O’Rourke, an eighth-grader whose father recently retired after 21 years of service in the Army. She has lived in several states and in Germany, and hopes for a career in medicine in the military.
Monday’s event was symbolic of a growing friendship that has been “life changing” for some participants, they said.
“This experience brought me back from a dark place,” said Tim Bassett, 62, formerly of Tremont and Saunemin and most recently homeless before moving to the hospital last year.
He was one of about 30 veterans from Danville who visited Tri-Valley on Nov. 9 for a Veterans Day program. They didn’t know what to expect other than a free meal, but were greeted outside by about 200 children holding balloons and welcoming them with extended applause.
There were “watery eyes” all around, said Bassett, who recalls every detail of that visit, which included a 21-gun salute, people dressed in military uniforms from every war, heartfelt thanks and moving speeches.
“These kids that day were so respectful. You could see it in their eyes — the respect and love for their freedom,” said Bassett, a Vietnam vet. “Your past sins don’t matter. It’s your attitude that gets changed.”
That connection was so strong that Tri-Valley’s sixth-grade choir visited the VA hospital before Christmas. This week, seventh- and eighth- graders performed music from an upcoming school play and fifth-graders read speeches they had written about veterans.
In the audience Monday was James Tucker, a member of an Army helicopter crew that flew former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to the peace talks in December 1972. That experience made the cease-fire remembrance event especially meaningful to him.
“It’s good the kids get out and about — plus, it gives them an appreciation for the veterans,” said Tucker who has lived in Danville for a year.
“These men and women fought in a very unpopular war,” added Harold Fritz, fellow Vietnam War veteran and winner of a Medal of Honor, the U.S. military’s highest decoration.
Danville Mayor Scott Eisenhauer also attended, recounting the grim statistics from the Vietnam War — 303,704 soldiers wounded, 58,156 died, 2,338 missing in action and 736 prisoners of war. He noted that many veterans who survived were not treated with the respect they deserved when they came home. “Unfortunately I can’t make that go away — how you were treated 40 years ago,” he said, but pledging to treat all veterans like the heroes they are.
Tri-Valley Middle School Principal Doug Roberts said the veterans also help in the school’s mission for students to be “people of gratitude.”
“Your value and purpose is very real and important to our young people. They are the future,” Roberts said.