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Area programs to honor veterans

Avery Wolff, Jade Renneberg and Eli Bessman practice the flag-folding portion of the Veterans Day ceremony at Century Middle School. (Shannon Geisen / Enterprise)1 / 3
Hundreds of vintage uniforms, boots, gloves, caps – from every branch of the military – have either been donated or purchased from thrift stores for the Century Middle School presentation. 2 / 3
Retired teachers Charli Cohrs and LaPalma Anderson spend months preparing for the Veterans’ Day program. “It helps the students honor veterans and learn about the history of our nation’s military,” Anderson said. They are looking for a new generation to take over and coordinate the annual tradition. (Shannon Geisen / Enterprise)3 / 3

The passion to teach hasn’t diminished for retired teachers Charli Cohrs and LaPalma Anderson.  The pair has collaborated for a decade – volunteering both time and money – to organize the Century Middle School Veterans Day program.  Fifth through eighth graders participate in the annual presentation.  Wearing authentic military uniforms, students pay tribute to veterans while learning the nation’s history of war and sacrifice.  All branches of the military are honored: Marines, Army, Air Force, Navy and Coast Guard.  Homeroom teachers choose which 70 to 80 students will participate.  “This is definitely a teaching tool,” Cohrs said. She taught for 38 years, Anderson for 34.  “I think these kids deserve some recognition,” she said.  “They work so hard,” agreed Anderson.  

Cohrs has collected hundreds of vintage military uniforms, representing the Civil War through Gulf Wars. Many are donated, others purchased at thrift stores along with boots, caps, gloves.  One uniform was worn at the Battle of Iwo Jima, another hails from World War I.  She also acquired war memorabilia from family members, friends and former students.  Solemn reflection descends upon students when they don uniforms.  “The students may be messing or joking around, but when they put the uniform on they become very serious,” Anderson said.  

A former student in Cohrs’ eighth grade class suggested that the school hold an annual Veterans Day program.  The first few years were “pretty rough” until kinks were worked out, Cohrs recalled.  Practice and uniform-fitting takes about three weeks, but preparation begins months earlier.  Drawing from her classroom curriculum, Cohrs wrote four scripts that rotate on a four-year basis.  A new theme emerges each year: “Flags of Our Fathers,” “History of the Branches of the Military,” “Honor Deceased and Living Veterans, POWs, MIAs and Current Soldiers” and this year’s subject, entitled “In Times of War and In Times of Peace.”  An “armed services medley march” incorporates a poetry reading, flag-folding ceremony, Taps and salute.  “It’s very impressive,” Anderson said. “I’d say this is a totally unique program.”  Both are grateful for the support from middle school staff who allow students to leave study hall or class to practice.  “We could not do this without them,” said Anderson.  

With the help of their husbands and volunteers, the Century School cafetorium is transformed from lunch room into suitable venue for the event.  They set up seating for several hundred, microphones, podiums, etc. within 30 minutes. Additional volunteers help students dress.  A choreographed slide show accompanies the readings, thanks to social studies teacher Ardis Johnson and her eighth grade “techie” students.  A band ensemble plays “The Star Spangled Banner.”  The Park Rapids American Legion Color Guard, the Legions Women’s Auxiliary, Sons of the American Legion and Ray Vaadeland also participate.  ‘There’s no way we could do it without all these people,” Anderson said.  

The Veterans Day program is sustained by monetary donations from individuals and the Blue Star Mothers.  The program, slated for 1:30 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 11, is open to the public. It typically lasts an hour or so, concluding with Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA.”  Every attendee leaves with a memento – perhaps a poppy, sticker, miniature soldier figurines or American flag.  New this year, the presentation will be posted on YouTube.  Now in their mid-60s, Cohrs and Anderson feel the time has come to pass the torch to the next generation. They are seeking someone to take over the Veterans’ Day program.  “We don’t know if it’ll go on or in a different form,” Anderson said. “It won’t go on forever. We know that.”

Nevis School  Ryan Vredenberg, a 2003 Nevis graduate, is keynote speaker at the Nevis School’s veterans program.  Chief Warrant Officer Vredenburg is a Black Hawk pilot for the U.S. Army. He is currently stationed at Fort Ryley, Kansas.  Vredenburg has been in the Army for about 11 years, serving two tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan.  He was deployed to Taji, Iraq, from 2006-09, as a UH-60 helicopter crewchief.  From 2009-11, he went to Fort Belvoir, Va., with the C Co. 12th AVN in support operations with the Military District of Washington and ran maintenance.  Vredenburg then served with Germany C Co. 5-158th MEDEVAC out of Katterbach, Del., from Nov. 2011 to Jan. 2013 as a UH-60 helicopter crewchief and ran maintenance for his team site while deployed to Kunduz, Afghanistan.  He and wife Kelly, also a Nevis graduate, have a one-and-a-half-year-old son, Alaric.  Dave Free, a Vietnam veteran and commandant of the Park Rapids Star of the North U.S. Marine Corps League, will speak briefly as well.  Veterans will be recognized for their service. Winners of a school-wide poster contest will also be revealed.  The Veterans Day program is scheduled for 1:20 p.m. on Wednesday, Nov. 11 and is open to the public.

Menahga School  The Menahga VFW Post 6206 Color Guard and Marine Corps League will present the nation’s colors to launch the 9 a.m.  Veterans Day program in the Menahga School gym.  Menahga students have an active role in the event, offering gifts to local veterans, providing patriotic music, sharing poetry and leading the Pledge of Allegiance.  Under the direction of April Hodge, the Menahga Junior High and High School choir will sing “My America.” The high school band will perform “The Message on the Rock,” directed by Beth Hahn. Fifth graders will sing “God Bless America.”  Jacob Bloomquist will share his winning essay for the VFW’s Patriot’s Pen Essay Contest. The annual competition encourages sixth through eighth graders to examine America’s history, along with their own experiences, and craft a 300- to 400-word essay. This year’s theme was “What Freedom Means to Me.”  Jennifer Stifter, winner of the VFW’s Voice of Democracy competition, will share her speech. Open to freshmen through seniors, contestants submit an audio essay about democratic ideas and principals. The 2015-16 theme was “My Vision for America.”  Menahga School representatives who are veterans or are currently serving will be recognized.

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