Thornapple Kellogg Middle School

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Eighth Graders Gain Deeper Appreciation for Veterans Day

The footprints were purchased by the students as a fundraiser to honor friends and relatives serving in the military now or those who have served.  The "Building Blocks of Liberty" is a wall reserved for special direct family members in the service or veterans.

And after Veterans Day, students will likely think about veterans and the service in ways they didn't think of before.

Middle School teacher Laura Nikkel shared her father's story of service during Vietnam - a war that was so unpopular in the United States her father was warned to change out of his uniform before he got off the plane coming home.

"Fortunately things have changed a lot and that's not how we treat veterans today," Nikkel told the eighth graders who gathered in small groups to learn more details about what it means to be a veteran, why Veterans Day is celebrated, and why it's important to remember all veterans.

Steven Roelofs, the father of Laura Nikkel, was drafted in 1969 and served in the 9th Infantry in Vietnam until February 1971. Nikkel explained a little of the history of Vietnam to the students and showed a television clip from the 1970 televised draft selection lottery process.

Her father was drafted in 1969. She said he had a scholarship to play baseball in college. As a full-time student, he would have been exempt from the draft. He had signed up as a full-time student but had to drop one class because it interfered with baseball practice. He intended to sign up for a different class, but in just the few days that he was classified as a part-time student, he was drafted in 1969.

Nikkel said he probably could have contested his draft, but opted instead to serve his country.

He completed basic training and advanced individual training in Kentucky and served in the 9th Infantry until Feb. 1971. During his service, Nikkel said her father was shot in the leg.

She shared some of her father's handwritten letters sent home to his parents during his time in the service. Many were written while he was in the field, sometimes on his knee because he had no other place to write. Every letter ended with "don't worry about me. I'll be ok."

She also told students even after returning home, many veterans found lingering effects from their days in combat - some from physical wounds they suffered, others from mental wounds.

Some, like her father, had serious effects years after. Roelofs was diagnosed with a particular type of cancer highly noted to have been caused by Agent Orange - a chemical used during the Vietnam War. He died at age 63 in 2013.

She asked students what they thought the word "hero" meant.

"To me, a hero is someone who is self-sacrificing, hard-working, dedicated to the greater good and willing to do what is asked no matter the consequence," she said adding her definition fit a veteran. "They put their country first and did what they had to do."

Eighth graders will present their donation of funds after Thanksgiving to the Barry County United Way to assist local veterans and to the Middleville Veterans Memorial.