When Milaca High School Principal Damian Patnode noticed far more people planned to attend the first Veterans Day program hosted by the school than he anticipated, he moved the event from the Dalagher Theater to the main gyms.
Patnode, a former military service member himself, took the opportunity to try out the school’s new sound system as well.
The gym was transformed from its acoustic nightmare state with the new system, which will be used for band and choir concerts in the future. The melodic sounds of the coordinated performance of the National Anthem between the concert choir and the symphonic band emitting from the gym proved the system’s first run was a success.
The dimly lit gymnasium was soon packed with students and area residents who joined the school in the day’s event. Elim Care Ministries buses parked outside were full of area seniors whose mobility may have otherwise prevented them from attending. Many came to hear Maj. Gen. Gerald Lang of the Minnesota National Guard speak during the ceremony.
A 1970 graduate of Milaca High School, Lang joined the military soon after finishing school in 1971 and has since enjoyed a prominent military career.
“Hopefully, this will turn into an annual event and more and more people will attend,” Lang said.
He gave a brief history of Armistice Day and the eventual national recognition of Veterans Day.
“Fortunately, for our nation, there continues to be a long and patriotic line of defenders,” Lang said. “They’re ordinary people in ordinary times who are asked to do extraordinary things.”
Lang also called on the young students to consider military service.
“I would ask those students here today: Have you thought about your future and is serving your country part of that future?” he said.
Students and audience members were also given a brief history of modern conflicts the U.S. has been involved in during the 20th and 21st centuries. He explained that during the wars in Korea and Vietnam, roughly 5 percent of the population served in the U.S. military.
“Today, less than one half of 1 percent serves in the United States military,” he said. “And that right there makes them pretty special. Look at the impact this small group of citizens have made around the world.”
Lang also drew contrasts and comparisons between the history of the U.S. draft and today’s all-volunteer military. He said that while in the past, some veterans didn’t have a choice as they were drafted, in all conflicts there are those who didn’t choose to sacrifice: the family members of soldiers, airmen, marines and sailors.
“Family members may not carry a rucksack over their backs or a rifle, but they carry a heavy burden until their loved ones come back home,” Lang said. “We too often forget to recognize you.”
Lang said he knows the importance of having a strong family support system as his loved ones have endured his absence during seven different deployments throughout his career. He cautioned veterans and their families to keep those bonds strong by talking to each other and sharing their stories.
“Let me tell you: My generation did a terrible job of that,” he said. “They didn’t talk about it. And because of that, thousands of stories are lost to us.”
He encouraged people to visit the Library of Congress’ Veterans History Project and urged everyone to talk to the veterans in their lives.
“We need to do this before it’s too late,” he said. “Keep in mind that we are a nation at war. So please keep our veterans and their families in your hearts and your prayers.”
Following Lang’s speech, the band and choir performed emotional pieces with the backdrop of military images from Milaca and across the nation in a slideshow compiled by band director Andy Nelson. When the band played the various theme songs for each of the service branches, Patnode asked those who served in the respective capacities to stand and be recognized.
“I think this is going to grow into something,” Patnode said following the ceremony. “I want it to be a huge event. I can think of no other veteran I would have rather wanted at our first Veterans Day program here than Gen. Lang.”
Milaca VFW Commander Danny Sandberg said he enjoyed the ceremony very much. Dave Johnson with the Milaca American Legion was just as pleased.
Minnesota Rep. Sondra Erickson was also among those who came to the school for the presentation.
“It was a wonderful program,” Erickson said. “It’s so important that students get to see a Veterans Day program and to hear the music.”