Patriotic music embraced the hundreds in attendance at Cleveland Middle School’s annual Veteran’s Day celebration on Friday morning.
Student government members scurried around the gymnasium, handing out red and yellow roses to the standing veterans in a gesture of thanks.
Red roses symbolized the love military members gave for God, country and man, while the yellow roses stood for the nation’s remembrance of their service during Veterans Day.
While more than a dozen veterans stood, an emotional stillness gripped the crowd despite several minutes of ringing applause.
With hundreds of students poised attentively on bleachers or cross-legged on the floor, the 45-minute ceremony opened with a call to colors by the West Johnston High ROTC, the singing of the national anthem accompanied by the Cleveland Middle band and the Pledge of Allegiance led by student Chandler Johnson.
Student Government Association representative, sixth-grader Jamie Williford, introduced his friend Ret. U.S. Army Col. Rudolph Baker, who served in the U.S. Army for 33 years, including enlisted service from 1954-1962.
“What is a veteran?” Baker asked, using a definition he joked that he found at Charlie’s BBQ restaurant.
“A veteran, whether active duty, discharged, retired or reserve, is someone who at one point in his or her life wrote a blank check payable to the United States of America for the amount up to or including, his or her life,” he said.
He then turned to the students.
“Look to your left, took to your right and look to your front, what do you see?” Baker asked.
“Fast forward 25 years. You’re looking at the leadership of this nation, ladies and gentleman,” he said. “Students, when you think about what you’ll be doing, remember this nation needs leaders. You’re the people that can make it happen.”
Among many assignments, Baker, who retired in May 1987, served in Korea in the First Calvary division in addition to tours in Germany, Vietnam and Iran. His stateside assignments took him around the country, including five tours at Fort Bragg.
Last year, Baker co-authored “The Boys of Benning,” which tells the life stories of 14 officer candidate school alumni, including Baker.
Eight percent of Johnston County’s population is made up of veterans, and 36 percent of those veterans served in the Vietnam War.
“They ensured the other 92 percent their freedom,” Baker said.
Sixth grader Brandon Agee, who explained the purpose of Veterans Day to the audience, said his grandfather served in World War II.
“I’ve learned that this day is about honoring veterans who are living, but still respecting those who have passed,” Brandon said.