Students, business sponsors, honor veterans with series of ceremonies and activities

Helicopter and other military equipment, female pilot, big draws to this Thanksgiving-in-May event

While most students aren’t exposed to the military, one group that is, Grand Rapids ROTC students, posed for a picture

“Get gutsy.” That was the message from Vernice Armour at the third annual Armed Forces Thanksgiving luncheon.

Armour flew the AH-1W Super Cobra attack helicopter in the 2003 invasion of Iraq and served two tours in Operation Iraqi Freedom, so she definitely knows about gutsy.

Never forget your roots and never do anything halfway were some of the words of advice Congressional Medal of Honor winner James McCloughan, right, gave to students in his speech.

Armour told those gathered at the luncheon she heard a woman speak for five minutes once about flying in the military, and she was hooked. She became the first African American woman to pilot attack helicopters. She is now a motivational speaker with infectious energy.

“If you don’t take action, it’s just a gutsy thought,” she said. “It’s not enough to just raise your hand. You have to do something.”

This echoed the spirit of the Thanksgiving event, intended to recognize and thank veterans across West Michigan AND connect them with high school students.

While it honored veterans across the community, the event also demonstrated to students from more than 50 area schools that military people and their service is more than just what they see in media.

Like the founders of this now-annual event, who discovered veterans among their business colleagues and decided to find a way to recognize them, students learned there are veterans in their schools and communities.

Kyle Herring of the Michigan Army National Guard, 63rd Troop Command in Belmont, saw the program as a good way to interact with students. “A lot of people grow up who don’t know any service members,” Herring said.

The Black Hawk helicopter was on display in front of the Gerald R. Ford Museum for students, who were encouraged to talk to their fellow classmates about what they had seen and learned at the Armed Forces Thanksgiving event
The Black Hawk helicopter was on display in front of the Gerald R. Ford Museum for students, who were encouraged to talk to their fellow classmates about what they had seen and learned at the Armed Forces Thanksgiving event
Rush Bush of Wyoming High School tries on a military helmet and vest

Students enjoyed the experience

“Everything from watching the helicopter take off to talking with real heroes” was an amazing experience, said Elias Hadley, a student at Kent Innovation High and Kent Career Tech Center. “The speeches given by everyone who was on stage were very motivating, and I feel like I learned a lot from them and how I can reach my goals better with a different mindset.”

Jackson Eckart of East Grand Rapids High School, said he thinks military service is an interesting idea, especially flying. He makes it a point to talk to military recruiters when they come to his school and said he feels badly so few other students take time to do it. “We put a lot of work into the military to make sure our boys and girls are safe,” he said.

“An absolute hard-core warrior who put her life on the line to take care of Marines,” was how Vernice Armour was described when she was introduced by Lt. Col. Brian Forney, a math teacher at Innovation Central High. “Marines are home now with families who wouldn’t be there without her,” said Forney, who served with Armour in Iraq

Flying the impressive Black Hawk chopper is just one of many jobs represented in the displays and service members. “It’s not out of reach,” said Chief Warrant Officer CW2 Derek Martin, who recently returned from Iraq and was one of the military personnel on hand to talk to students. “It’s just a slightly different job.”

The display at the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum gave students a close-up look at equipment the military uses, with a Black Hawk helicopter parked in front. “You don’t get to see this stuff every day,” said Rush Bush of Wyoming High School.

Several students sat in the pilot seat and walked through the helicopter. Later, they lined up on the grassy hill in front of the museum to watch it take off.

Not Wrong to Say ‘I Love You’

Congressional Medal of Honor recipient Jim McCloughan, a combat medic in the Vietnam War, spoke to students about the influence the military had on his life after the service.

Mikayla Petree from Wyoming Park High School, from one of 55 area high schools who participated in the event, straps herself into military gear

In the middle of an extremely dangerous battle where he almost lost his life and saved the lives of others, he remembered praying to God that when he got back he’d tell his Dad he loved him — something he’d never done — and that he’d be the best teacher and coach he could be.

“It’s not wrong to say ‘I love you,’ even to your battle buddies,” he said.

McCloughan ended his speech with a booming, tear-jerking verse from the song “God Bless the U.S.A.”:

“And I’d gladly stand up next to you,
And defend her still today,
‘Cause there ain’t no doubt,
I love this land, God Bless the U.S.A.”

More photos from the luncheon

Linda Odette
Linda Odette is a freelance writer and editor with more than 30 years of experience in journalism. She’s worked primarily as an editor in feature departments at newspapers in West Michigan, including the Grand Rapids Press, the Muskegon Chronicle and the Holland Sentinel. She lives in East Grand Rapids near the Eastown edge, has a teenage son and a daughter in college. Read Linda's full bio

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