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Veterans’ Stories, Experiences Are Living History

Fred Groenke remembers nearly 20 years ago when Veterans Day wasn’t widely celebrated. That’s when he began an annual tradition at Kent City High School, honoring those who served our country.

As the school’s principal in 1996 and a Marine Corps veteran himself, Groenke said he began to wonder how much living history could be put to use teaching students about world events. So, along with other Kent City residents, Groenke invited a small number of local veterans to share their stories with students during an assembly that continues as an annual tradition to this day.

Scouts prepare Colors for ceremony

“That first year we had a small group of veterans. I’m not sure to this day how that evolved into what it is now. We knew even back then, that we had some interesting people in our own community,” Groenke said. 

“I just felt there was a need to inform our students that there were people in their own community who had served.”

Groenke recalled one early year hosting two Pearl Harbor survivors and Muskegon native Joe Beyrle, who is the only known person to fight for both the American and Soviet armies. Beyrle was captured by the Nazis after parachuting into Europe before D-Day and later escaped into the hands of Russian soldiers also fighting Nazi Germany which adopted him as their own.d to inform our students about people in their own community who had served.”

“Veterans Day wasn’t a big deal back then, so we had the run of the West Michigan celebrations,” Groenke said. “It really turned out to be a great event for the veterans and a valuable learning experience for our kids.”

English teacher Jim Jakiemiec who has since taken over organizing the event, estimated 80 to 100 veterans took part in this year’s event. This year is the first that Groenke has attended since he moved out of state after retiring from the district in 2007.

Jakiemiec said the school’s 350 students take seriously their legacy of honoring the men and women who’ve sacrificed for the freedomswe enjoy. He said the event seems to have helped them understand the prices paid.

“They really get the big picture; they understand what these veterans have 

gone through to make sure we have our freedom,” Jakiemiec said. “This has really developed into a big deal for us and the kids appreciate it and take it seriously – beyond getting out of class. They appreciate having the time to celebrate the sacrifices these veterans have made.”

Guest speaker Toby Miller speaks at veteran event

This year’s guest speaker was Toleman (Toby) Miller, 44, of Rockford, who served 24 years on active duty including tours in Iraq, Kuwait, Germany and S. Korea. Miller is now on active duty with the Michigan National Guard as its aviation standardization officer in charge of reviewing pilot qualifications.

Miller told students the benefits of military conflicts often are not immediately clear. He noted while “All of my wars have been in the Middle East, so it’s hard to see some of the gains we’ve made.” Miller added.

“I’m hoping the generations that come after me will see them.”spending four years in Korea, he’s witnessed first hand the stark contrasts between freedom and dictatorship in the country’s demilitarized zone. “I’ve flown along the border of North and South Korea,” Miller said. “I’ve seen the gray, almost wasteland in the north, and where they’ve replanted everything and made things really very beautiful in the south.

Miller added that young people deserve to hear first hand from those who have looked evil in the face. “There’s always going to be evil in the world and if you don’t step up, it’s going to overtake you,” Miller said. “It’s important that students get a chance to talk to the veterans who have had their boots on the ground.”


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