“When I stop and pause while I’m talking – there’s a reason,” said Pullen, who was named Middleville’s honored veteran of the year. “It was a very emotional time and day for us. We are here to remember all the loved ones lost and remember the sacrifices they gave for our freedoms. Like the words say on the monument just over there, all gave some and some gave all.”
Rich Jenkins of Middleville American Legion Post #140 tried to put the loss into perspective for students who weren’t even alive when the attacks occurred.
“Over 3,000 people died. They were people just like us. In the last election, there were about 2,000 registered voters in Middleville that voted. If it happened here, we would all be dead,” he said.
He told students it was important they understand and learn the history of Sept. 11.
“You have to pass the lineage on and the history on to the next generation so this doesn’t ever happen again,” he said. “So many people have given their lives so we can enjoy what we have today. We can’t forget them. Please, don’t ever forget this day.”
A group of about 30 eighth grade students clutched brief reports they wrote after each choosing and researching a victim from the attack. The voluntary assignment during the first two weeks of school earned them a right to attend the ceremony. The reports, complete with a picture of the victim, brought the names and faces of a handful of the victims to life.
Cooper Marcukaitis chose to learn about Capt. Jason Dahl of Flight 93 that went down in a rural Pennsylvania field. Marcukaitis said he wants to be a pilot someday and has visited the Pennsylvania memorial site, so picking Dahl as his research person was easy.
“The people on the plane fought back and because they did that, they sacrificed their lives so others could be saved,” said Marcukaitis. “I wish I could pay them back for what they did.”
Ainsley Oliver chose a sixth-grade student, Asia Cotton, who was on Flight 77 that crashed into the Pentagon.
“She was chosen to attend a conference with her teacher and they were on their way,” said Oliver. “She was a student just like me and I was that age just two years ago. She didn’t do anything wrong, she was just excited about going to the conference.”
Oliver said she read biographies of several of the victims, but the little girl stood out to her as someone she wanted to remember.
Eighth-grade history teachers Rojean Sprague and Chris Boysen said the goal of the project was to make 9/11 real for students and make them realize the victims were people just like them, their families and friends.
Boysen said she was pleased with the reports and the number of students who participated.
“It did what I wanted. It brought people to life and made that day more real for our students,” said Boysen. “I think they got the message to never forget what happened that day.”
She said she also wanted her students to realize the events of Sept. 11, 2001, forever changed U.S. history and the American people’s way of life. “It changed who we are and how we think about others,” she said.
Several high school students also were able to attend the first annual ceremony to learn about the history and impact of Sept. 11, 2001.
“Our mission today is to honor the victims of the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks by planning and executing an appropriate annual patriotic or memorializing event in the community on that date so the memoirs of the victims do not fade and to demonstrate our support of the U.S. Armed Forces and our total commitment as Americans to defeat terrorism once and forever,” said Barry County Judge Michael Schipper who served as master of ceremonies for the event.
He introduced a fire tradition dating back to the mid-1800s. When a firefighter died in the line of duty, headquarters would transmit five bell strikes repeated in four series. The custom has continued to this day and is known in fire communities as “Striking the four fives.”
Silence again swept the crowds as a Thornapple Township Emergency Services firefighter rang the Four Fives in honor of all the firefighters who died that day.
Barry County Sheriff Dar Leaf asked the crowd to imagine what they would do and how they would feel if they got the call firefighters and police received that day. “Can you imagine? You see a tall building on fire, debris falling all around and people running all over – and you run into those buildings? Can you imagine running into it? Think about your heart pounding so hard you could feel it in your throat, running up all those steps because the elevators were not working? Think about it,” he said.
Leaf said the attacks were horrible and meant to strike America down, but instead, America grew stronger.
“We came together stronger. We’re Americans and we made it,” he said.
TTES chief Randy Eaton asked the young people attending to realize what sacrifices had been made that day.
“Pay it forward,” he said. “Think about what you can do for your country and your community.”
State representative Julie Calley also addressed the crowd.
“Emergency responders and our military personnel represent the best qualities of mankind. They are selfless, courageous, dedicated, and determined to put the welfare of others before their own safety,” she said.
She too told students that the attacks on that day were meant to tear America apart.
“It is unfortunate that it often takes tragedy to make us more grateful for everyday life. The average American response was to draw up with greater pride and devotion to our country and her freedoms. To hold our loved ones tighter and express gratitude toward our military personnel and first responders. We were proud to be Americans. It would be indeed another tragedy if we failed to remember what we learned 16 years ago today,” she said. “It was the intent of our enemies to weaken us. Instead, we united in strength. They sought to fill us with fear. Instead, the United States of America stood up with renewed courage. Buildings crumbled and fell, but we rose shoulder to shoulder. They sought to divide us, and yet we unified. They sought to extinguish the light of liberty and freedom. But on that dark day, the flame of a free nation burned brighter than it had in decades. May we never forget.”
A wreath was laid by Middleville Sgt. Robb Horrmann of the Barry County Sheriff's Department and a bell tolled 11 times, once for each of the nation's major conflicts from the American Revolution to the War on Terrorism.
“Taps,” played by two Thornapple Kellogg High School band members, echoed through the pavilion and along the river as everyone stood in silence. The band closed the ceremony by playing “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” while guests sang along.
After the ceremony, people milled around for a bit, many sharing memories of what they were doing and where they were on that day. Many of the students found their way to the veterans, police and firefighters and took a moment to shake hands and thank them for their service. Some added assurances they'll never forget the day's event.