By Kevin Kelly
Catholic Key Associate Editor
LEE’S SUMMIT — Maybe Marines aren’t so tough after all.
Marine Sgt. Ralph Ford, who served from 1959 to 1963, wiped tears from his eyes at the end of Our Lady of the Presentation School’s salute to military veterans.
He had seen it all, including service in Vietnam in 1961 — a full four years before that war became fully “Americanized.”
“I was one of those 10,000 who really weren’t there,” he said, sent in as “special advisors” after the French were defeated and the southeastern Asia nation was partitioned into north and south.
Ford was there, along with over 100 military veterans and their wives, as the Catholic school this year opened their celebration of Veteran’s Day not only to the parish and school family, but to the entire community of Lee’s Summit.
The assembly was planned entirely by the fifth grade class, led by teacher Denise Russell.
Ford’s granddaughter, Sophia Frustaci is in that class, and that’s enough to make even a tough, old leatherneck shed a tear or two.
“It means a lot that my granddaughter realizes that we should be remembered,” he said. “For a fifth grader, she’s pretty on top of things.”
Gene Rittman came wearing his old U.S. Army uniform shirt, complete with a chest full of medals.
Rittman and his unit, B Company, 1st Battallion, 7th Cavalry, 1st Cavalry Division, was stationed from 1968 and 1969 in the A Shau Valley, home of the famous Hamburger Hill, and a valley where the Ho Chi Minh Trail ran directly through.
His medals included two Bronze Stars for valor in combat, a Meritorious Service Bronze Star, a presidential and a congressional citation for the unit, and a Purple Heart.
“I got some shrapnel in my chest from a ChiCom (Chinese Communist) grenade,” he said. “I saw the guy throw it, and I saw him get killed. The guy standing right beside me shot him.”
Rittman also never forgot the day after he arrived in Vietnam during the height of that war.
“My unit had seen some heavy action a week earlier, and a Catholic chaplain came to see us,” he said. “He led us in the Lord’s Prayer. I wasn’t Catholic. I’m still not Catholic. But I’ll never forget that.”
The Presentation fifth graders presented poems, essays and patriotic songs for their special guests, as more than 400 of their fellow Presentation students waved flags to honor the service of all veterans, and to thank those who came for their sacrifice for others, whether they served in war or in peacetime.
Navy Yeoman 1st Class Don McGraw enlisted in June 1945, two months before World War II ended, not knowing that the war would end in two months as the Navy prepared for a full invasion of Japan.
He was assigned to the Naval Air Station in Olathe, Kan.
“I almost got killed twice, and I never left the states,” McGraw said. Once was when he nearly backed into a spinning propeller, only to be pushed aside at the last minute by a buddy.
“If I would have backed into that, it would have taken my head off,” he said.
The second time was on a flight aboard a transport, when one of the engines died and the pilot had to make an emergency landing.
“I’ve never been on another plane since,” McGraw said.
Bosun’s Mate 3rd Class Jerry Guerich served from 1953 to 1957 aboard three ships, including the destroyer, the U.S.S. Samuel N. Moore. He came wearing the bosun’s hat he wore some 60 years before.
Fifth grader Eric Warnecke said the assembly was a lot of work, but a labor of love.
“It took us almost a month to plan it,” he said. “But we did it because people who serve our country deserve our respect. They risked their lives to protect our freedom.”
Eric also had another reason. His dad, Mark Warnecke, served four years of active duty as a 1st lieutenant in the U.S. Army from 1985 to 1989, then was promoted to captain during his service in the Army Reserve.
“This was great,” the elder Warnecke said.
As the featured speaker, invited by the fifth grade class, looked over the huge cafeteria filled from end to end with children and veterans, he agreed.
“Wow!” said Father William Bartoul, a lieutenant colonel with 22 years of Air Force active duty as a chaplain. “This is very impressive, and this is an honor for me to be among you.”
Father Bartoul told the children that he wasn’t a “veteran” yet.
“A veteran is anybody who has successfully completed their time in military service,” he said. “Someday, I will join my brothers and sisters, but today is their day. Veterans’ Day.”
Father Bartoul asked the children to learn two things — the value of patriotism and the power of service and sacrifice for others.
“Patriotism simply means love and respect for our country,” he said.
“Why is your home so special? It’s because it’s where your family lives,” Father Bartoul said. “When we talk about our national home, the United States, it’s the place where our national family lives.”
As a member of a national family, it is important to serve, he said.
“Be kind to your neighbor,” he said. “We’ve had some disasters in our national home, some hurricanes and tornadoes. Find out what you can do to help.”
He also reminded the kids of a very powerful form of service.
“Pray. Pray as a church,” he said. “It means a lot.”