The News Courier in Athens, Alabama

November 9, 2012

Tanner High honors veterans at ceremony

By Kim West
kwest@athensnews-courier.com

— TANNER — In recognition of the upcoming Veteran’s Day holiday, student council members sponsored a breakfast and assembly for local veterans at the Tanner High School cafeteria and gymnasium early Thursday morning as more than a dozen veterans and their families attended the festivities.

The assembly’s featured guest speaker was Mike Durant, who retired after 22 years as a chief warrant officer (CWO4) in the U.S. Army. Durant, who survived the helicopter crash in Mogadishu, Somalia, made famous in the film and book, “Black Hawk Down,” has penned two military accounts, including “Nightstalkers” and “In the Company of Heroes.”

Durant, whose black dress shoes bore a military spit-polish shine, opened his remarks by removing the microphone from the podium so he could walk around and have a conversation with the audience. He received a standing ovation.

“When you talk to people in the military, they never say they worked in the military,” said Durant, now the CEO of Pinnacle Solutions in Huntsville. “They say they served in the military.

“Service means sacrifice, and veterans aren’t the only ones who sacrifice — it means putting service before your own needs.”

Durant and his crew of three survived the crash in Mogadishu, but they were trapped by enemy fire as MSG Gary Gordon and SFC Randy Shughart circled above the melee in another helicopter and made the fatal decision to help their fallen comrades. Both Gordon and Shughart, who were posthumously award the Congressional Medal of Honor, and all three of Durant’s crew were killed during the ambush.

“Nobody ordered them to do that — they volunteered for it,” said Durant, who suffered a seriously injured back and broken leg in the crash, was taken captive for 11 days before being released. “Randy and Gary got me out of the aircraft and protected us, and they were killed by enemy gunfire. They are the reason I’m standing here today.

“There’s no greater love than to lay your life down for your friend. Not all veterans get injured or give their lives, but they all give something.”

The school-wide assembly also included the playing of the national anthem by the high school band and “Taps” by Band Director Vechiel Stone, the singing of “You’re a Grand Old Flag” by the Tanner third-graders and “God Bless America” by the fifth grade.

The breakfast for the veterans was held in the media center prior to the assembly as teachers brought food and drinks, and student council members brought soft drinks and acted as hosts and escorts for the veterans. Sixth grade students also decorated posters that lined the school hallways.

Local veteran Walter Benford, who learned about the event from his great-nieces and Tanner students Rochelle Gill and Tiara Grigsby, said he was thankful for the effort made by the students to show their appreciation for veterans.

“This has been wonderful, and it means very much to the veterans,” said Walter Benford, who served during the Vietnam War as a squad leader in the U.S. Army. “I feel that these kids are looking (up) at someone that has been able to give service to their country, especially veterans. A lot of these kids don’t get a chance to meet or see a war veteran in person.”

Student council sponsors are sixth grade social studies teacher Lindsey Ramsden, junior high math teacher Cindy Glass, high school history teacher Bobby Earl Green and high school science teacher Sarah Lowman.

The event was organized by the student council, which elected officers two weeks ago. The four senior officers include: Kacie Dentleegrand, president; Kyle Shoulders, vice-president; Samara French, secretary; and Jessica Lesueur, treasurer.

“It’s been very exciting for me to see people who have served us and get to thank them personally because they fought for us and risked their lives,” said Dentleegrand, whose brother, Athens High School graduate Ricardo Dentleegran, is a lieutenant at Marion Military Institute. “That takes a strong, brave person to do that, and I’m very grateful to people who are willing and have the heart for it. I don’t think I have the strength or courage to do that.”

For Shoulders, the event gave him the opportunity to show his support to military personnel.

“For me, Veteran’s Day is a day that I can say thank you for everything they do,” said Shoulders, whose uncle, Wade Houston, served in the U.S. Navy. “Setting up this event was a challenge, but being on the student council was a good way to work on my leadership skills.”