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The City Journals

Veterans proud to have served, appreciate Ridgecrest students’ gratitude

Nov 27, 2019 07:34AM ● By Julie Slama

During Ridgecrest Elementary’s fifth annual Veterans Day ceremony, U.S. Army retired Staff Sgt. John Riches, who has two great-grandchildren attending the school, was given thank-you notes written by a fourth- and fifth-grader. (Julie Slama/City Journals)

By Julie Slama | [email protected]

John Riches wasn’t surprised when he was drafted in 1944.

Riches served three years in the U.S. Army where he saw action in the Philippines and Japan before he returned stateside to earn his degree at the University of Utah. 

The World War II staff sergeant, who has two great-grandchildren attending Ridgecrest Elementary, was one of 17 veterans or active duty military who were honored at the school’s fifth annual Veterans Day ceremony.

“It was great to receive a thank-you,” Riches said. “I’m glad I served.”

The ceremony, which featured the school choir’s tribute to the armed forces and the entire student body singing “America the Beautiful,” also included three poems written by fifth graders, two who honored their relatives who served.

The honorees, who served in four of the five armed forces branches, received thank-you notes written by fourth- and fifth-graders and a standing ovation of hundreds of school children and guests.

U.S. Army National Guard Staff Sgt. Timothy Beery, who graduated from nearby Hillcrest High School in the 1980s, thanked students for welcoming the honorees to their school. He told students he has been to 11 countries and five continents and had his college education paid for through the military as well as made great friends and seen great things.

“I’ve been to Afghanistan twice, so there is some service and sacrifice that comes along with this great adventure,” he said.

Beery, who has been in the service 12 years, then fielded several students’ questions, including if he had ever been scared — “sometimes, I was definitely scared” — to weapons he used, such as  a “RPG-7; it was a blast, no pun intended” — to if he was ever injured, which was during a basketball game breaking his arm, not in combat — to “were you in the Civil War?” to which he joked — “Do I look that old?”

He told students it was an honor to serve.

“It’s nice to be recognized on Nov. 11, but many of us feel that pride in doing service is recognition enough,” Beery said. “We wear the uniform because we want to; it’s something many of us nowadays choose to do.”

That’s how retired Col. Michael Martin feels.

“It was a privilege to serve,” he said. “I wouldn’t trade it. I’m a very blessed man. I love my family and my country.”

Martin came from New Mexico to the ceremony at the request of his grandchildren and found his picture twice on the wall that thanked veterans — once from the information his grandson Nelson Payson’s filled out, and a more recent photo with Martin’s son, who also served in the military while holding a photograph of his father who served, according to granddaughter Addison’s paper.

“I joined the Army in ’68 at age 17 with my mom’s permission,” Martin said, recalling he had graduated from high school two weeks prior before serving 31 years. “I always wanted to be a soldier and a teacher, but I never figured out the order.”

After his retirement from the military, he did become a U.S. history and economics high school teacher in Albuquerque, but “being a soldier is harder.”

Martin missed the action in Vietnam and the Cold War; instead, he was shipped to the heat of New Mexico, the cold of Germany and the arctic air of Alaska, where it was 50 degrees below zero when he landed. 

“There were valuable experiences, but not every day is a good day. I never regretted a thing; it was a wonderful journey,” he said.

Principal Julie Winfree, who grew up on Air Force bases worldwide as her dad was a colonel in the service, said she hopes the ceremony prompts conversations with school children about Veterans Day.

“We have many veterans in our area, so it’s an opportunity to teach our children about their service they have given all of us and to thank them,” she said.

For retired Army Specialist 5 Chuck Rice, the gratitude is appreciated, even years after he served in Vietnam from January 1969 to January 1970.

“We were attacked all the time,” he said. “Of my 360 days there, we were attacked 190 times.” 

When the California native returned to Utah to finish his master’s degree, he wasn’t shown appreciation.

“When we came back, we weren’t well liked so we didn’t tell anyone we served. It was a culture of unrest. You didn’t know if someone you didn’t know was anti-Vietnam or would be accepting. People just didn’t talk about it. I only wore my uniform twice afterward,” he said. “It wasn’t until soldiers returned from Iraq when people would applaud them that the recent recognitions of veterans came about.”

For Rice, that meant 47 years after he served was the first time he was recognized. 

“I thought it was in my past and never thought about it,” he said. “When my grandkids asked, I came and appreciated being asked.”