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Staff Writer

PEPPERELL — “You’re what we think about, when we deploy and as we fight,” Air Force Col. Randy Dobbins told Nissitissit Middle School children over breakfast on the final school day before the Memorial Day weekend.

As in prior years, the veterans met with children at Nissitissit, attended the always-memorable Peter Fitzpatrick School assembly held in their honor, and spent three hours in Varnum Brook Elementary School classrooms.

At Nissitissit, military members were welcomed by Principal Michael Tikonoff, pledged allegiance to the flag, and were serenaded by the chorus as they sat with a hand-picked group of students.

Air Force 1st Lt. Joshua Neustrom reminded students that “kids all over the world haven’t got the freedom to go where they want, to eat what they want, and in many cases, to learn.”

Air Force Senior Master Sgt. Kelly Smith admonished them to “listen to your teachers and you’ll be doing the job.”

Similar words were spoken by Air Force Lt. Col. Denise Irizarry, but it was Marine 1st Sgt. Roderick Johnson of the 25th Marine Regiment at Devens — taking over for the reassigned and well-loved Sgt. Tyrone Brown — who made the largest impact.

He held up photographs of the late Cpl. Scott Procopio and the late Capt. Katherine Harris of Massachusetts who was shot down while flying blood to the wounded three days before her tour in Iraq was up. Johnson told the students that these two, and others in the pages of a book he held up, are the reason the students should stop at 3 p.m. on Memorial Day for a moment of silence.

At Peter Fitzpatrick School, students honored veterans with patriotic songs sung to a slide show of active-duty military with a patriotic enthusiasm that is becoming well-known throughout the branches of military stationed in Massachusetts.

“Sgt. Brown sends his love,” Johnson said, then spoke to the children about the meaning of Memorial Day — sans pictures. He taught them how Marines call cadence when running in double time. The children double and even triple-timed their way through the cadence, in what might easily have become a melee, and ended with the words “United States Marine Corps.” It was standing-room only in the crowd of parents next to the door.

VFW Post 3291 Quartermaster Tony Saboliauskas spoke about Pepperell’s historic veterans — Col. William Prescott of Bunker Hill, Capt. Prudence Wright of the Women’s Militia and Lizzie Brown, the adopted 10-year-old daughter of the Massachusetts Sixth Regiment in the Civil War.

Saboliauskas handed out prizes to winners of the VFW art contest including Leah Hannon, Angela Gikas, Alex Keins, Kevin Lundstrom, Colin Pember, Victoria Vitale and Amilia Misail. All received a $25 Barnes & Noble gift certificates and flags. Lundstrom’s entry was judged best overall.

Veterans spent the remainder of the school day visiting classrooms and talking with Varnum Brook students. They were offered lunch at both the Peter Fitzpatrick and Varnum Brook schools.

Prior to the Peter Fitzpatrick indoor ceremony, Brownies and Cub Scouts were taught how to salute the flag in military fashion by Iraq veteran Marine Sgt. Luke Hirtle, who is about to deploy once again.

American Legion Commander Steven Ernst, a retired Air Force captain, challenged the students to “do something patriotic this weekend” in an outdoor speech beneath the flag.

“My theme today is who or what is a soldier ,” Ernst said in part. “There are soldiers all around us, some from the past, some in the present, and some will be in the future. Grandparents, parents, siblings, sons, daughters, cousins, uncles, aunts, friends, teachers, janitors, firemen, police officers — the list doesn’t end.

“We all have things in common and we also have many differences. But at the core, we are all dedicated, patriotic Americans who would rather suffer ourselves than have any one of you suffer,” he said.

Ernst explained the oath that military members take, to protect and defend the Constitution, and that none hopes to use their training in war but if they do, the aim is to survive to fight and not surrender.

“There is a strong bond between members of the military although you may hear us kid each other every now and then,” Ernst said.

“For those who don’t know me, I served in the United States Air Force in the early 1990s and flew in F-111 fighter aircraft. I had intended to stay in as long as I could but a serious aircraft accident forced me into medical retirement,” Ernst explained.

“Over the years I have come to understand the bond between soldiers. As a parent I feel real pain whenever either of my children is hurt physically or mentally. I constantly want to be near them in order to protect them from harm and wish that I could take their pain in their place.

“It is the same when I see soldiers in the news. I wish I could be with all the soldiers, to protect them, to be there for them. This is the soldier’s bond,” Ernst said.

“My challenge to you is to do something patriotic this weekend. If you are in town Monday, please come out and watch the parade. If you are interested, you can come to the Park Street cemetery and help the veterans, Brownies, Girl Scouts, Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts place flags on veteran’s graves.

“If you travel to some other location, attend a parade there. Otherwise, or in addition, try to do something for a veteran, alive or dead, in remembrance,” Ernst concluded.

“Just don’t get caught up in your own pleasure and forget about what it cost in lives to give you the extraordinary life in the greatest country in the world,” he said.

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