STAFFORD – Ocean Acres Elementary School students honored fallen war heroes and showcased their appreciation for local veterans and those who continue to serve the nation.
Superintendent of Schools George Chidiac credited Lori Kundrat, a preschool teacher, as the creative mind behind the “Support Our Troops” assembly. The cherished tradition, initiated at least fifteen years ago, has continually evolved and grown with each passing year.
Students at Ocean Acres range in age from preschool to second grade and had already learned that Memorial Day is intended to honor the brave men and women who sacrificed their lives to protect our country. Last week’s event put the youngsters face to face with those who signed up, knowing they also ran the risk of never returning home.
The morning started with a brunch at the Ocean Acres Community Center, where dozens of individuals of different ages and from various service branches gathered. A shared camaraderie swept through the room as they sat together, forming a unique bond. Some attendees arrived dressed in sharp military uniforms, while others opted for casual attire, content in simply being present.
Kim McAllister, a Vietnam War Army vet, said it was the fourth time he and his wife came to the program put on by the school children. Like many combat veterans, McAllister was not eager to discuss his wartime days or speak of those who did not make it home. Some battlefield wounds etched emotional imprints that may never heal.
“I don’t like getting attached to anybody,” McAllister said softly.
Several veterans who attended the assembly came with friends from area American Legion and VFW posts. Some served as far back as World War II and the Korean War, while others fought in Iraq and Afghanistan or were currently on active duty. Many had served in Vietnam and came home to feel unappreciated.
Age often played a significant role in determining whether individuals enlisted voluntarily or were selected through the draft during certain periods. For some, their military journey commenced upon completing their education, such as Dr. Stan Mahan, a dentist in private practice on Long Beach Island.
Mahan said he joined the Navy after he completed dental school and dedicated 26 years of active and reserve duty with the US Navy Dental Corps. Dressed in his sparkling white Captain’s uniform and impeccably pristine white shoes, Mahan came to the event with a clear sense of purpose.
“My second grandson has never seen me dressed like this,” shared Mahan. “I came last year for my older grandson in my dress blues.”
Charlie Thomas and John Rivers stood together as old friends, who both started off as Navy sailors. Rivers was a Korean War vet, and Thomas ultimately made a career out of military service.
“I started in the Navy as a hospital corpsman,” said Thomas. “I also served with the Marines in Vietnam and then joined the Army for 29 years.”
Not everyone waiting to enjoy the “Support Our Troops” assembly witnessed the ill effects of war firsthand. Some never even made it outside the local area or the United States at all. Yet, they all shared the same spirit of service for a nation and people they loved.
A receiving line of student safety patrol members awaited the service members as they moved from their “mess hall” to the next room to watch the program prepared for them. Little voices echoed their respect and gratitude as each man and woman passed them.
“Thank you for your service,” repeated one young child after another.
Southern Regional Junior ROTC students proudly presented the colors, standing in front of the eager elementary students who were prepared to honor the troops. Each child donned a paper hat in the corresponding colors of the branch of service represented by the flag they stood beneath.
From their posts on the stage, students could see the moving effect of the National Anthem on their invited guests. Some saluted, while others placed their hands across their hearts.
“Memorial Day is traditionally seen as the starting of summer,” Chidiac reminded those assembled. “But it’s much more than that, since its first official observance on May 5, 1868, when it was called Declaration Day. It has been a day of remembrance for those who have sacrificed and died serving our nation.”
Chidiac then called for a moment of silence for all those who courageously sacrificed their lives to fight for our freedom and our country. A whisper fell over the crowded room as grown men and women joined small young children in a poignant reminder that gratitude knows no age limit.
Mayor Greg Myhre also spoke to the group, pointing out that Stafford Township has over 1,000 veterans living in town. He called Stafford a patriotic place to live and encouraged everyone to fly an American flag respectfully.
Students staged ten separate performances, concluding the program with their rendition of “Thank You, Soldiers,” a testament to gratitude for those who keep watch over the nation.
Ocean Acres Principal Susan D’Alessandro said the students had been practicing for months to make the program successful. Both the school’s PTO and teachers’ association participated in serving meals and organizing the event. In addition to the local mayor, Business Administrator Matthew Von Der Hayden, Board of Education members, and representatives from the Stafford Police Department were also in attendance.