KINGSTON – John Richards adjusted his eye patch as he prepared to enter the Wyoming Valley West Middle School auditorium for its Veterans Day program.
Richards, 66, of Kingston, graduated from Kingston High School – the same building that is now the nine-town district's middle school.
On Friday, Richards and veterans from all wars participated in the school's Veterans Day program – Let Freedom Ring. Three World War II veterans – Jim Walsh, Dave Long and Frank Steinberg – were honored at the school they graduated from in 1943-44.
About 50 students, members of the school chorus, paraded in carrying American flags that Walsh himself provided and ironed for the ceremony.
Richards is a veteran of the Vietnam War -- the eye injury is a constant reminder -- and celebrations are not what he is used to.
When Richards returned from Vietnam and for many years after, he and most Vietnam veterans were not hailed like those of other wars. It was a stain that many Vietnam vets have never been able to wash away.
I'm honored to have been asked to be here today, Richards said. Maybe it's a little late, but it feels good to feel accepted.
The program featured patriotic songs, inspiring speeches and lots of red, white and blue. Biographies of Walsh, Long and Steinberg were read as more than 800 students sat quietly to learn about history.
Some 68 years earlier, Walsh, Long and Steinberg sat in the same auditorium, never expecting how their lives would change when they enlisted in the U.S. Army.
When the program was over, the audience gave the veterans a standing ovation – something Walsh said was very gratifying. As Walsh stood on stage several students came up to shake hands with him and his two buddies.
Stay good Americans, he told each.
Walsh said schools need more programs like the one Assistant Principal Barry Rogers put together.
It radiated patriotism, he said.
State Sen. Lisa Baker, R-Lehman Township, told the students she carries her father's dog tags with her.
We owe an immense debt to those who have fought to protect our precious freedom, she said. No matter how much we do to repay their service and sacrifice, it can never be enough.
Many of the students stayed after the program to shake hands with the veterans.
What they went through is impossible for us to really understand, said Cheyenne Blackhawk, 13, an eighth-grader. But we owe them everything.
Christine Shandra and Kyle Footman, both 13, said the program gave them a better understanding of what being a veteran is all about.