AYER/SHIRLEY — As students at Ayer-Shirley Middle School entered the auditorium with loud cheers of greeting, one would never have suspected that their enthusiasm was about to be channeled into a quiet and respectful assembly to honor U.S. veterans.
But from the moment the Veterans Day assembly opened, one could have heard a pin drop.
American Legion Post 183 Historian and Acting Chaplain Charles Church then introduced U.S. Marine Corps Sgt. Alex Hollings, of the 1st Battalion, 25th Marine Regiment serving at Fort Devens, and USMC Sgt. Cromwell, who also serves as police officer in Shirley.
“Today is actually the Marine Corps’ 235th birthday,” said Hollings. “The country is only 234 years old. The Marine Corps was protecting this country before it was a country.”
Honoring the fallen
Hollings said that no matter the branch of military service, “We all signed up for one reason — to serve and protect this country,” and that all who serve have a right to a full military honors funeral.
“It’s not just to honor their service, but also their family,” he said.
Hollings and Sgt. Alfreda Cromwell then walked the students through the steps that must be taken to notify a fallen solder’s next of kin about his or her death, and demonstrated how carefully the American flag is draped over the soldier’s coffin, and then folded with the greatest of care by two military personnel.
It was a dramatic demonstration that ended with a salute from one officer to another, and the words Sgt. Cromwell would say to the family:
“On behalf of the President of the United States, the commandant of the Marine Corps, and a grateful nation, please accept this flag as a symbol of our appreciation for your loved one’s service to Country and Corps.”
“Veterans Day is about the sacrifices we make,” said Hollings, later adding, “I’m still happy to have a day off…But Veterans Day is a day to think about those people we fold flags for.”
Members of Shirley
Legion Post 183
Former World War II veteran and Shirley American Legion Post Commander Norman Albert then invited students Daniel Baldino and Tyler Mayo to the stage to show the audience what it is like to undergo the rigors of Marine boot camp, and to serve as a veteran.
Posing as a newly recruited Marine, Baldino was instructed by Albert on everything from how his head would be shaven to how he would need to clean his rifle. He was even issued a uniform, and upon completing boot camp, was awarded his daypack and clothing.
Albert then turned to Hollings in his dress blue uniform to show the students what Baldino would look like in the future. “You’ll be a bit taller by then,” Albert said.
Mayo, serving as the veteran, was presented with a jacket and instructed on how to serve his legion.
Former Shirley American Legion Post Commander and World War II Army veteran Joe Landry then presented Baldino with a special award from American Legion Post 183 for volunteering each year to pick up the flags that are displayed in the cemeteries on Veterans Day and Memorial Day.
With that, Landry told the students a little about himself. He said that he has two brothers who served as mechanics in the Air Force, a sister who served in the Coast Guard, and another who served in the USO. Landry himself is a veteran of the Battle of the Bulge.
He told how his outfit shot down German airplanes and also accidentally shot down two U.S. planes. He said that he “chased General Patton all over Europe” delivering supplies, and landed at Omaha Beach on the coast of Normandy on July 18, 1944.
At that time, he said, the Americans felt that they were winning the war, “but the Germans thought otherwise. On Dec. 16, 1944, the Germans had put a great force in front of “green” troops without much experience and killed a lot of people. And Patton was told to go to Belgium and push them back where they belonged.
“I brought supplies and was lucky to get out without a scratch. I served in six major battles without a scratch,” he said, adding that all of his family members also came home.
“I’ve enjoyed being a legionnaire for 60 some odd years. I’m only 86, so I’ve got some years to go,” Landry said.
He then introduced 8th grade math teacher Debra Flagg, whose father served in the U.S. Navy aboard the USS Missouri. Her father, said Landry, was the person who set the table upon which the Japanese signed their treaty of surrender at the end of World War II.
Many Ways to Serve
and to Honor
In closing the program, former U.S. Navy Officer Church paid tribute to the 42 million dogs that have also served in the U.S. military, and asked the students to think about the different ways that they themselves could serve their own communities, whether by helping a fellow student with homework, or fixing dinner at home.
“Why is it we can go to school? Why can we walk down the sidewalk or ride bikes with our friends?” he asked the students, rhetorically.
“There are places in the world where people cannot do any of these things. However, we do have these freedoms, largely because of our country’s Constitution and because of our veterans, past, present, and future.
“Military members, now veterans, are all sworn to protect and defend our Constitution and our country, and their faithful service is what insures these rights for us,” he said. “When you see a veteran in the grocery store, or a parking lot, or at school, or in an airport, thank her or him for their service in our military.”