Col. Adrian W. Burke gave a demonstration that Joshua Cowell School students will not soon forget, if ever.
The occasion was Tuesday’s September 11 program in the school’s Garden of Peace where the National Day of Service and Remembrance and Patriot Day was observed in memory of the thousands of innocent lives lost 11 years ago during what President Obama described as “the worst attack on the American people in our history.”
The colonel, who was director of logistics for U.S. Forces Afghanistan in support of Operation Enduring Freedom prior to assuming command of the Defense Logistics Agency Defense Distribution Depot San Joaquin in 2010, first asked all of the students to stand up. Next, he asked all the girls to sit down prompting a murmur of mild protest from several of them, while not yet privy to the reason behind what was being asked of them to do.
The veteran colonel of Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm and two Operation Iraqi Freedom deployments then went through more steps – asking who among the boys who were still standing have parents who are not working, who don’t own cars, and so on – and asking those who raised their hands to sit down as well. At the end of the elimination process by way of his step-by-step inquiries, only about two-dozen male students were left standing. That small group, the colonel told he dumbfounded students, would be the only ones being able to go to school if they were living in Afghanistan.
Driving his message home even further, the colonel who has four kids of his own told his attentive young audience, “You’re blessed to be in the United States where you are able to go to school.”
He prefaced his unscripted speech by asking all the 11-year-olds to raise their hands.
During the show of hands, he noted, “These children were not born when our nation was at war,” referring to the War on Terror that was precipitated by the bombing and subsequent collapse of the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York, the attack on the Pentagon in Arlington, Va., and the downing of a hijacked plane near Shanksville, Penn., by terrorists on that fateful day of Sept. 11, 2001.
“We are a nation at war until the threat is eliminated,” said Pastor Mike Dillman who started the annual Memorial Day Not Forgotten event, and who shared the outdoor stage in Joshua Cowell’s quad with other featured guests.
On Monday’s day of solemn observance, Dillman asked everyone “to think of… the 11,000 total casualties” of the War on Terror since 2001 whom he called “the 11,000 patriots, and the 48,000 wounded soldiers.
“Think of them today, and their families, and their sacrifices.”
At the same time, he also told the young ones at the assembly, “Today is a recognition of you, students, as well. Thank you for being great Americans.”
He then made two presentations to Joshua Cowell fifth grader, Genevieve Torres. One was a Support our Troops T-shirt, and the other was a coin which, Dillman explained, represents the Marines who knocked on the door of the Palmer family in Manteca to deliver the “terrible news” that their son has been killed in action in Iraq.
“So that’s a very special coin,” Dillman told the 11-year-old who started a school project to help the Cpl. Charles O. Palmer Support Out Troops Project which sends care packages to all American soldiers serving overseas.
Toward the end of the program, the more than 70 students who pledged to bring care-package items to the event on Monday placed their bags and boxes in front of the stage for the Support our Troops volunteers headed by the Marine corporal’s parents, Charles and Teri Palmer, to prepare for mailing. The packing of the boxes was done in one of the classrooms with the help of about a dozen students.
“They grieve to this moment,” Dillman said of the Palmers. “How do you even go over the loss of a son or daughter?”
In the immediate region alone, 58 men and women have died during the War on Terror, “so we honor them and bless them today,” he said.
Charles Palmer said he and his wife Teri started the Support our Troops project “to do what he (their son) would have wanted us to do.”
Collecting, packing and sending the care packages to American soldiers overseas have helped them somewhat with the healing process, he said. Today, their effort has grown from sending care packages to two Marine soldiers when they started to dozens of service men and women in Kuwait, Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, Japan, the Philippines and other countries in the world. They send these packages “wherever our troops are stationed,” Palmer said.
“The fact that you’ve taken the time to put these things together will turn their (the soldiers’) hearts like you’ll never know,” Palmer told the students during the presentation.
“You’re bringing smiles all around the world. You, too, are heroes because you’re bringing smiles to these heroes,” he added.
Along with the care-package items they collected, the students also wrote letters to the soldiers.
An e-mail letter from President Obama received by Joshua Cowell Principal Bonnie Bennett, who shared the contents to the assembly, drove home the significance of the students’ effort to collect care items for American soldiers who are serving their country.
“Today, as we remember the victims, their families, and the heroes who stood up during one of our country’s darkest moments, I invite all Americans to reclaim that abiding spirit of compassion by serving their communities in the days and weeks ahead. From volunteering with a faith-based organization, to collecting food and clothing for those in need, to preparing care packages for our men and women in uniform, there are many ways to bring service into our everyday lives – and each of us can do something,” Bennett, who choked up at one point, read the president’s message.
It went on to say, “Even the simplest act of kindness can be a way to honor those we have lost, and to help build stronger communities and a more resilient nation. By joining together on this solemn anniversary, let us show that America’s sense of common purpose need not be a fleeting moment, but a lasting virtue – not just on one day, but every day.”