Bennie James Jr. worked hard to find the right words to express his gratitude.
Seated next to his son at a table set up in the Cherokee Trail High School cafeteria, James paused and reflected before speaking on behalf of himself and the dozens of veterans who were steadily filling up the room. Decked in Army fatigues and a cap bearing the title of "Desert Storm Veteran," he finally found a simple and straightforward way to convey his thoughts.
"It feels great to receive this appreciation," said James, one of a large group of military veterans who were honored at the Cherry Creek School District's Veterans Appreciation event held on Sept. 28. Before heading to the evening's game between the Cherokee Trail and Grandview football teams, James and fellow veterans gathered in the cafeteria for a dinner ceremony. "This makes us feel proud."
James wasn't alone at the table. His son of the same name, Cherokee Trail senior Ben James, sat at his side and looked at him with an undeniable expression of admiration and respect. After his father spoke in clear terms about the value of the event, the younger James offered his own concise and meaningful tribute to his namesake.
"I'm real proud of my father. He's a hardworking man, a role model, a best friend," Ben James said of his father. "I know the hardships he's faced and the hard work he's done. Having him here is spectacular."
That sense of connection and admiration was at the heart of the CCSD Veterans Appreciation Event, which kicked off three years ago as a way to honor local veterans and build bridges between generations.
"It's an appreciation for what veterans have done for us … We appreciate that through their sacrifices, we have the opportunity to be free," said Chris Smith, Executive Director of Elementary Education for the Cherry Creek School District, who worked with CCSD Athletic Director Larry Bull to launch the event. "We just want to make sure that we, as a district, take the time to honor them."
The event isn't the only way the Cherry Creek School District honors its veterans. The dinner and football game on Sept. 28 came in advance of the district's Veterans Week celebration held in November, a coordinated effort between every school in CCSD to honor and celebrate veterans through a wide range of events including parades, panel discussions and presentations. From elementary to high schools, every CCSD building finds a way to pay tribute.
While Veterans Week is an unparalleled event in the metro area, Smith said it shouldn't be the only chance to make an important tribute.
"We want to try to find times to do this throughout the year. Veterans Week shouldn't be the only time we pay tribute," Smith said. "We feel that it's important to have this connection for our kids, for them to understand why they have the opportunities that they do. I don't know that our youth really realizes that – this is an opportunity to teach them about the sacrifices that our veterans and our service men and women make, the sacrifices that give them the right and opportunity to even be in a school."
Students from Cherokee Trail and Grandview, as well as from other CCSD schools, found several ways to make those connections during the event. During dinner, students circulated between tables, striking up conversations with the guests of honor and listening to stories culled from lifetimes of service. A table set with the ceremonial symbols honoring P.O.W.s was set up in the back of room, serving as a stark reminder of the true toll of service.
After the meal, Veterans headed from the CT cafeteria to the neighboring Legacy Stadium through a "gauntlet" of well-wishers, a group composed of student musicians, cheerleaders and mascots. Before kickoff, the assembled crowd stood to pay tribute to the veterans seated in the stadium's front rows.
It all had a clear effect on the visiting honorees.
"It blows me away. It's a very emotional thing," said Marvin Fester, a U.S. Navy veteran who spoke with students about the ejection seat and pressure chamber training that he underwent during service. He passed around his old military IDs; students carefully examined the relics from Fester's former life in the military. He offered his small audience some straightforward advice. "Stay out of trouble, and remember that you live in the greatest country in the world."