Brooke students honor, assist area vets

WELLSBURG – Brooke High School paid tribute to local veterans from various eras and provided a boost to a Wheeling group that sends care packages to military serving abroad at the school’s Veterans Day assembly Friday.

The assembly has become a tradition at the school in which veterans from World War II to the present are invited to stand and be recognized for their service. Various student groups also have raised funds for various causes supporting veterans.

This year students throughout the school got involved, collecting treats, personal hygiene products and other items for Christmas stockings to be sent to service members overseas by Boatsie’s Boxes, a nonprofit group formed by Gail “Boatsie” VanVranken.

VanVranken, who was among guest speakers for the program, stood in awe as students descended from the bleachers of the school gym to load 130 stockings onto a Christmas-style sleigh. Members of the school’s chapters of Future Business Leaders of America and Interact also presented $130 to Van Vranken to defray the cost to ship the stockings.

Before the presentation VanVranken explained she began collecting and sending the care packages in 2004 when her son Patrick, then a senior master sergeant in the Air Force serving in Baghdad told her of a need for sheets and toiletries at a combat support hospital there.

“This really hit my heart and I had to do something,” she recalled.

Vranken said the group has since attained federal nonprofit status and sends about 50 care packages each week to troops in such countries as Afghanistan, Kuwait and Korea. That doesn’t include stockings and other special packages sent around four holidays.

She said many of the troops express their appreciation through e-mails. She shared a few, including one by a soldier who said he was saddened at being apart from his wife and family at Christmas when the receipt of a stocking from the group “really brightened” his day.

Another related how the staff of a surgical unit lost all of their personal possessions when their headquarters was burned to the ground by enemy fire.

“One soldier wrote, ask the American people not to forget us,” she said.

VanVranken said in addition to facing the threat of enemy attacks, troops near the frontlines in war-torn countries often must deal with harsh weather and limited resources.

“We must do everything we can to support them. Why would we not?” she said.

Before the assembly, Mick Mullen, leader of Vets for Veterans, said Brooke High School students also have remembered veterans in their own community by signing Veterans Day cards to be delivered by the volunteer group to former service members living at several nursing homes.

Toni Shute, the school’s principal, noted 70 years of military service, from World War II to the present, were represented by the many veterans in attendance.

Students and staff at the high school also heard from veterans of the past, present and future.

Doug Lilly, commander of the Ohio Valley Veterans Memorial Squad and a Vietnam War era veteran, described his experiences training for the Army’s Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. He recalled being among many who made hard landings into trees on a very overcast night but somehow emerging unharmed.

Despite such risks, Lilly recommended teens enlist for “a few years in the service because it’s a great adventure you’ll never forget for the rest of your life.”

Representing the present, Army National Guard Staff Sgt. Scott Richards recalled leaving his wife and 1-year-old daughter to serve in Bosnia when he was 22 and encountering the poverty of the nation, where children rummaged through the military’s trash for food.

Richards said veterans have shed blood, sweat and tears, and many have given their lives to preserve America’s freedoms. He encouraged the teens to show respect whenever the national anthem is played or the Pledge of Allegiance recited “because you never know when a veteran may be standing nearby.”

Representing the future was Natosha Douglas, a Brooke High School senior who recently completed basic training in the Army National Guard. She said all veterans love, honor and respect their country and those who served before them.

Davis presented a framed plaque bearing The Soldier’s Creed to her father, Joe Douglas Sr. an Army Desert Storm veteran now helping discharged veterans find employment as a disabled veterans outreach program specialist for WorkForce West Virginia.

Douglas’ son, Douglas Jr., also serves in the Army National Guard.

Shute noted another Brooke High School senior, Austin Mitchell, also has enlisted in the National Guard.

Also participating in the assembly, which was organized by the school’s career technical students and staff, were the Brooke High School High Choir, who performed patriotic music; members of the school’s band, who performed taps and the Ohio Valley Veterans Memorial Squad, whose members demonstrated the proper folding of the U.S. flag while explaining the symbolic meaning for each fold.

After students at the assembly delivered a standing ovation for the veterans in attendance, Shute told the veterans, “We hope you will take with you the fact you are welcome and respected at Brooke High School every day of your life.”

She added, “We thank you for having our backs.”