At least seven students at St. Mary Magdalene Catholic School have parents in the military, and about 50 more have military ties because their parents, grandparents, uncles and cousins once served.
But even the students with no links to the military showed their appreciation on Veterans Day, gathering in the school’s gym to sing patriotic songs and listen to an Army colonel talk about service and integrity.
The students also made sure their appreciation of veterans and active-duty service members was felt off the school’s campus. They donated 500 pounds of their own Halloween candy to the North Carolina USO and drew about 300 cards for troops who will be deployed and away from their families this holiday season.
“I hope the soldiers are OK,” one student wrote.
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“We love you!” wrote another.
It’s not just soldiers who can get lonely during deployments. Their children experience loneliness, too, including some of the 650 elementary and middle school students at St. Mary Magdalene who have spent their entire lives coping with the uncertainty of military life.
“He’s been gone for certain times in my life … and other people don’t realize how hard that is,” 13-year-old Lauren Cruickshank said of her father, Tim Cruickshank. “It’s really hard. But he’s serving.”
Her dad didn’t miss his daughter’s Veterans Day event, though.
Cruickshank, a lieutenant commander in the Navy with a background in the SEALs, took a break from his job training Special Forces medics at Fort Bragg to be at the school with Lauren and his two other children, Cole and Sarah.
Lauren has lived in a half-dozen states and Germany. Despite the constant moves, she plans on continuing that lifestyle by following in her father’s footsteps.
Just in the seventh grade, she already knows she wants to be a Navy intelligence officer when she grows up, giving support to troops such as her father.
“They’re risking their life, and they don’t have to,” she said.
Her classmate, 11-year-old Mike Wilson, said he also wants to continue his family’s generations-long tradition of military service.
“I want to be an Airborne Ranger like my dad,” said the sixth-grader, whose father and uncle are both officers with the Army Rangers.
Their future goals are rare, though, in a school where many of the children seem to have little concept of war – even though few, if any, of them were born before 9/11 and all of them have lived their entire lives in wartime.
Even when the keynote speaker at the event, Col. David Leach, told the crowd that he has been deployed multiple times to Iraq and Afghanistan, several students asked if he had ever been in a war or been shot at.
But Leach, an attack helicopter pilot who currently trains other Special Forces soldiers at Fort Bragg’s Joint Special Operations Command, didn’t share war stories with the youngsters.
Instead he encouraged them to pursue an education, even if school isn’t always fun.
“I can’t emphasize how important going to college was,” Leach said.
He joined the Army straight out of high school to avoid going to work in the coal mines that were his hometown’s main source of employment, but he later went to college and became an officer.
Leach praised teachers, saying they show how there are ways of serving and strengthening the country other than through the military.
“I’ve learned that there is honor in serving, and there are many ways to do that,” he said.
Leach, a master parachutist, did make sure to praise Special Forces and the Army in words the young audience could understand. It’s what convinced him to join the military 28 years ago.
“Jumping out of a plane is always great fun,” he said.