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Armed Forces Thanksgiving message: aim high, persevere

Annual luncheon puts students at tables with military members

Multiple districts — Retired U.S. Air Force Col. Kim “KC” Campbell had a message for high school students while speaking at the Gerald R. Ford Museum during Armed Forces Appreciation month. 

“Sometimes things don’t work out as planned; sometimes you hear the word ‘no,’” she said.

Campbell shared how the Air Force Academy rejected her first application, but through perseverance — in the form of sending a letter every week during her senior year — she received an acceptance letter and realized her goals.

Campbell became an officer and command pilot, and was decorated for piloting her A-10 Thunderbolt II back to base in southern Iraq after taking heavy anti-aircraft artillery damage in aerial combat over Baghdad during Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003. 

She said: “If you want something, put in the work. It’s not going to come on its own.”

‘We really want them to go back to their schools and be leaders who lead with courage, and that’s not always easy to do.’

— Steve Passinault, Forest Hills Central High School principal and Armed Forces Thanksgiving board member 

Connecting with Veterans 

Campbell served as the keynote speaker for the ninth annual Armed Forces Thanksgiving luncheon.

The event brought students and educators from more than 30 West Michigan high schools together with local veterans and community leaders to create conversation around the stories and contributions of those who served in the armed forces.

Retired U.S. Air Force Col. Kim ‘KC’ Campbell speaks to high school students and teachers at the Gerald R. Ford Museum

All proceeds from the luncheon are donated to the West Michigan Veterans Coalition.

Attendees also explored hands-on experiences with military equipment and met members of the Grand Rapids police and fire departments at The Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum.

Forest Hills Central High School teacher Steve Labenz said he had attended the event with students for the past nine years because their principal serves on the Armed Forces Thanksgiving board.

Standing outside the museum, Central High School junior Chloe Flowers-Stiles had already started reading her schools’ gifted copy of Campbell’s book, “Flying in the Face of Fear: A Fighter Pilot’s Lessons on Leading with Courage.”

“I didn’t know anything about her or her story, but I learned (from the first few pages of the book) she struggled in school, got rejected from the Air Force the first time she applied, (and) persevered to get accepted,” Chloe said. “Her story is very interesting.” 

The Shields of West Michigan Bagpipers, led by Caledonia High School band Director Kyle Wellfare, led the crowd to the JW Marriott hotel for the luncheon. 

Over plates of roasted chicken, stuffing and cranberry sauce, students sat with veterans of all ages, asked questions and listened to their stories. 

Steve Passinault, Armed Forces Thanksgiving board member and Forest Hills Central High School principal, explained the event’s two-fold purpose.

“It’s for students to learn from veterans themselves and also learn about the magnitude of being able to give back in a community like ours,” he said. “We really want them to go back to their schools and be leaders who lead with courage, and that’s not always easy to do.” 

Completing the Mission 

During the program, Passinault and Katie Pennington, fellow board member and Holland Public Schools assistant superintendent, presented the Peter Ruppert Thanksgiving in Action award to Hundsonville and Caledonia high schools. 

The award gives $1,000 to each school for a new or existing project to honor and celebrate veterans in their home communities. 

Caledonia High School history teacher Heather Tornes said the award was enough to push senior Brody Woodwyk’s fundraising efforts for a veteran’s memorial wall at CHS over their goal of $10,000. 

“We’ve been working on it for a while, and now, hearing we have enough for it is something that has been long awaited, and I’m excited to see it get put up,” Brody said.

This year was Brody’s second time attending the Armed Forces Thanksgiving. He said it’s a great opportunity to learn more about veterans and hear about their military experience.

Brody plans to join Michigan State University’s Army ROTC program this fall and eventually enlist in the U.S. Air Force.

“Hearing from ‘KC’ and about what she did, and the courage she wants us to implement in our lives, is something I will never forget and not take for granted,” he said. 

Read more from our districts: 
Mock trial team excels at state finals
State honors athletic secretary for dedication

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Alexis Stark
Alexis Stark
Alexis Stark is a reporter covering Byron Center, Caledonia, Godfrey-Lee, Kenowa Hills and Thornapple Kellogg. She grew up in metro Detroit and her journalism journey brought her west to Grand Rapids via Michigan State University where she covered features and campus news for The State News. She also co-authored three 100-question guides to increase understanding and awareness of various human identities, through the MSU School of Journalism. Following graduation, she worked as a beat reporter for The Ann Arbor News, covering stories on education, community, prison arts and poetry, before finding her calling in education reporting and landing at SNN. Alexis is also the author of a poetry chapbook, “Learning to Sleep in the Middle of the Bed.”


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