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AYER — “Besides parades, hoopla and days off,” Page Hilltop Principal Fred Deppe reminded students that Memorial Day is a day to honor the military “past and present and the many who have given their lives. This is our time to honor them.”

Local veterans and uniformed soldiers were seated on stage as students of all grades paid tribute. Fifth graders Noah Salmon and Hannah Justice were the masters of ceremony, introducing the 1st Battalion 25th Marine Regiment Color Guard from Fort Devens.

Fifth-grader Jessica Russell read aloud a short essay about her father, Army Staff Sargent David Russell. Jessica said her father’s been in the Army for 32 years, joining right out of high school. Jessica explained it was her father’s second deployment, having returned from Iraq in April 2010.

“My older sister and I get to ‘see’ him on Skype,” said Jessica.

Because Kandahar is nine hours ahead of Eastern Standard Time, Jessica said they often just talk on weekends. The connection is generally poor “because he’s half a world away. It feels like a part of me is with him.”

“When he is away he does not get to celebrate my birthday or other holidays,” said Jessica. For Christmas, their mother Tammy moved the computer into the living room by the tree “so he could be with us when we opened our presents.”

As Jessica talked, family photos were projected overhead. “My dad is risking his life,” noted Jessica. While acknowledging she’s afraid for her father, Jessica said “I know that he will come home because he promised me that he’d try not to get killed and would come home to me and my family. Hopefully when he comes home, he’ll never have to leave us again.”

State Rep. Sheila Harrington thanked the Page Hilltop students for their donations of cards, artwork and other items as part of Operation Patriot Pride, welcoming home Devens-based Marines in the overnight hours of Jan. 13 into Jan. 14.

“I can always count on you,” said Harrington. “I just want to let you know it does count to each and every one of them and their families.”

Harrington and attorney Susan Edgett led the students in interpreting the lyrics to “America the Beautiful.”

How do the words make you feel, Harrington asked the students.

“Proud,” said one boy. “Blessed,” said a girl. “Grateful,” said another student. Harrington wrote the words down on a white board.

Turning to Ayer selectman and Army veteran Jim Fay, Harrington asked for a one-word description of the patriotic song.

“Thankful,” said Fay. “Thankful to be an American.” Edgett wrote down the word, and added one of her own. “Memory, for those who’ve sacrificed their lives.” Another member of the American Legion Post 139 offered a phrase “Gold Star Mothers.” Edgett wrote it down and added “I’m a Blue Star Mother.”

Edgett explained to the students that a Gold Star mother is one who “sent her child off to war and their child did not come back. I am a Blue Star Mother, meaning I’ve sent one of my children oversees. But she will return home — so she assures me.”

“It’s great that we show our pride, but it’ s equally important that we show our gratitude,” for soldier’s service, said Harrington.

Students Olivia DeBeaucourt and Kylee Meadows took to the podium, accompanied by two men they paid tribute to — their fathers. Army E4 specialist engineer Eric DeBeaucourt, based out of Camp Edwards, and Army E6 Staff Sargent Matthew Meadows, based out of Fort Devens, stood behind their daughters.

Kylee Meadows said her father was an Army supply officer in Kosovo.

“He will stay as long as they let him stay. He could not picture himself doing anything else. He’s part of the greatest military in the world. I am very proud of my dad and my country.”

Olivia DeBeaucourt said her father will go to Afghanistan in August following training in Texas. “Sometimes he is gone for days, weeks or months. When he is away, he writes or calls us at home when he can. When he comes home, he gives us all a hug and a kiss. My dad loves being in the Army. He said it is his way of paying tribute to the soldiers who have sacrificed their time so that our families can enjoy a free America. I am very proud of my dad.”

As a medley played aloud, the soldiers and veterans present stood as the theme song for each branch played. Eight Army, four Navy, two Air Force and two Marine soldiers and veterans stood to a hearty round of applause. After the assembly, the men, including a contingency form the Ayer American Legion Post 139, stood in a receiving line of sorts, where students shook the veterans’ hands and gave high-fives.

Before the students left for the long weekend, Deppe asked the group to remember to convey five simple words to veterans they know and meet: thank you for your service.

Follow Mary Arata at twitter.com/maryearata.

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