The throng of children waved miniature American flags in front of Fort Belvoir Elementary School, chanted “U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A!” and sang “My Country ‘Tis Of Thee.”
They were welcoming a group of active-duty and retired members of the military to a Veterans Day event on Friday. Among the veterans in attendance were Viola “Bonnie” Rice, who served in the Navy during World War II, and Army Maj. Khanh Diep, who deployed twice to Iraq.
Service and sacrifice are familiar to the children at the the school, located on the grounds of Ft. Belvoir, where about 98 percent of the 1,200 students, from kindergarten to sixth grade, have a family connection to the military.
“It’s great to see these soldiers who have fought for us for a very long time,” said 9-year-old Julian Hernandez, a fourth grader. His father serves in the Air Force and recently deployed to Afghanistan. “I’m proud of their accomplishments these past days, weeks, months and years.”
Rice, 91, served in the Navy WAVES program for women who volunteered for crucial posts in the military. She was a radio operator and Morse Code specialist in San Francisco for two years during the 1940s.
“I think I’ll have neat things to tell them,” said Rice, who wore a lavender shirt with an image of herself in a Navy uniform on the back. “World War II is ancient history to them.”
Diep was born in what was then Saigon, Vietnam, and grew up in Houston. She played tennis at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., and has been on active duty since 1999. She gave a presentation to a class of 6th graders about her two deployments to Iraq in 2003 and 2011. Her unit was among the last to leave the country last year.
She described the dangers of life in a war zone and about how she “said a little prayer,” before every convoy through the desert.
“I’m humbled to be here, it’s touching,” said Diep, now working on women’s health-care issues at the Department of Veterans Affairs.
George Washington, 55, retired from the Army in 2006 as a colonel and is now a special education teacher at Fort Belvoir Elementary. As a former infantry officer, he said he knows how stressful life can be for a child in a military family, and he sees his job as continuing his earlier work.
“It’s an extension of my service,” Washington said, noting that during the past decade, a number of Fort Belvoir students had parents killed overseas. “When you walk through these corridors and peer in the rooms, you have no idea what these kids are thinking about. These kids serve too.”