It’s not every day that your grandpa speaks in front of the whole school. Even rarer is the day when the Army’s second-highest ranking civilian representative visits a Leawood elementary school.
A Veterans Day celebration brought Undersecretary of the U.S. Army Joseph Westphal to Brookwood Elementary School on Monday morning to visit his grandsons’ school assembly as the featured guest speaker.
Normally, he would have accompanied the president to Arlington National Cemetery to lay a ceremonial wreath. This year, he chose Brookwood.
Speaking to several hundred students, veterans and others, he asked the kids to think about the words of the Pledge of Allegiance that they say in their classrooms each morning.
“What we celebrate today is that these men and these women, who are your grandparents, your parents, your uncles, your aunts, who served in the military, bled to defend that flag,” he said.
Westphal asked students to think about superheroes and share ones they knew. Suggestions ranged from Thor to Captain America to The Flash.
The veterans attending the assembly were the real superheroes, Westphal said.
“You will grow up in a place where you will be able to be free and have your liberties. … You will be able to exercise your right as a citizen to have justice,” he said. “Today, when you go up to one of these veterans … whether you know them or not, I want you to … shake their hand, look them in the eye and say, ‘Thank you for your service to our country.’”
He also acknowledged that educators have a tough job.
“I would rather be undersecretary of the Army than be school board president or superintendent any day,” he said.
Before the assembly, he visited with students in Ellen Wilson’s first-grade class, including grandson Josh Westphal.
He spoke to the class briefly about the history of the Army and met some of the veterans students had brought with them for the assembly. Westphal also distributed special coins to World War II veterans who had come to the assembly to honor their service.
More than 150 adults attended the assembly, including Shawnee Mission School District Superintendent Jim Hinson and school board members Donna Bysfield, Craig Denny and board president Deb Zila.
Many of Brookwood’s 373 students sang patriotic songs, occasionally accompanied by the Brookwood Hand Chime Choir.
Principal Teddi Pendland spoke to the group about the students’ efforts to learn about heroes and veterans.
“This day is all about celebrating our veterans who have fought for our country and protected our country. We’ve also learned that heroes are outside of the military as well and (the kids) have opportunities to be heroes every day in their lives,” Pendland said.
Retired Marine Sgt. Al Lemieux, who served in Korea, also spoke at the assembly. He often gives talks to children on Veterans Day.
“I share with them what we did as infantrymen. I just share with them how we lived — no gruesome stuff,” he said.
Many of the students brought their own veteran visitors. Seven-year-old Rebecca and 6-year-old Sara Schmidt brought their dad, Scott Schmidt, a 23-year veteran and active duty Army major at Fort Riley.
“It means a lot to see all these kids doing their program,” said Scott Schmidt, whose most recent deployment to Iraq was in 2010. “I think I’d like (my kids) to learn that there’s a lot of people who sacrificed a lot for our freedoms.”
He had no idea that Westphal would be at the assembly.
“I would have polished up my stuff a bit more,” quipped Schmidt.