“Grandpa Dave” Watt calls Frenchtown Elementary, the school where he frequently volunteers, “the most patriotic school in the state,” in large part because of the district’s annual Veterans Day celebration.

He retired from the Navy in 2003 as a master chief petty officer, the highest enlisted rank, after 30 years of service. More recently, he earned his nickname for volunteering at the school once a week as a foster grandparent.

As students from all grades, as well as some family members, filled the bleachers on Friday, Watt said school celebrations of Veterans Day are important.

“I’m part of that group that comes home from Vietnam and was spit on and they wouldn’t even let me wear my uniform in the San Francisco airport,” he said. “I’ve been here three years and every year I’ve been here, it (the celebration) means just as much.”  

Frenchtown students hosted their third annual Veterans Day celebration for service members. They also recognized eight seniors who have enlisted: Treyjan Richardson, Trystan Richardson, Corrick Kuhl and Brookelyn Sewell in the Army; and Jon Patrick, Bryson Perry, Thomas Kaiser and Fabiola Bundy in the U.S. Marine Corps. It was one of several similar events scheduled at area schools this week or next to honor military service and sacrifice. The official federal holiday is Saturday.

As former Spc. Jeff Wilcox walked into the gym, Bella Powell, 11, asked if he was a veteran. He served eight years in the U.S. Army.

“May I escort you?” she asked.

Powell hooked her elbow around his and walked Wilcox across the room to a seat. He and his daughter Caitlyn, 11, moved to Frenchtown from Boise a couple of years ago. He was impressed by Frenchtown’s event.

“There’s so much negativity in the world right now,” he said. “It’s good for them to see something positive.”

Master Sgt. Richard Mallozzi, who has served in the Army since 1999, had two sons in the stands: sons, Gavin, 8, and Payton, 7. He also applauded the school for teaching kids of all ages about the importance of Veterans Day.

“They need to know they get what they get,” he said. “All this stuff doesn’t come free.”

Like all the seats reserved for veterans, former Spc. Cal Bonnet found a handwritten card on his chair. He unfolded the red construction paper to find a blue heart popping out with the words, “Happy Veterans Day. Thank you for your service. We are glad your (sic) here! Thanks for your help. We appreciate you.”

Bonnet was invited to the ceremony by his granddaughter and was glad to know she is learning an important part of U.S. history.

“People should know what happened in the past and what we had to do,” he said.

The ceremony Friday morning was led by Emily Kaminski and Brenner Warren, both 10 years old.

“Letting the veterans come here today is very important,” Kaminski said. “They’re here for us and are our heroes.”

Warren agreed.

“We wouldn’t be here without them. Celebrating Veterans Day is a great way to thank them. We wouldn’t be America without them,” he said.

After a presentation of the colors, the Pledge of Allegiance and a performance of the Star Spangled Banner by the Accidentals, a high school choir group, former 1st Sgt. Gerry Christensen presented a small table set for one with a white tablecloth and a black flag draped over the chair symbolizing prisoners of war and soldiers who remain missing in action.

“They are unable to be here with their loved ones,” Christensen, who served in the Army before becoming commander of American Legion Post 124. “We bear witness to their continued absence.”

He later noted that the Frenchtown post was renamed in honor of Army Ranger Kristofor Stonesifer, a 28-year-old from Missoula killed along with another soldier in a Blackhawk helicopter crash in Pakistan — among the first Americans to die in the Afghanistan war.

The Frenchtown ceremony also included short speeches by two veterans.

Capt. Char Gatlin, a retired Army Ranger and regional commander for the Military Order of the Purple Heart, described his time on a casket team at Arlington National Cemetery.

“You learn about the other side of it,” he said. “Yes, we’re soldiers. Yes, we move forward. Yes, we do whatever we’re asked to do and we do it efficiently. There’s another side of it. … When our friends don’t come back for whatever reason or we get up there in age, we wind up going through Arlington. In Arlington, everyone is equal, no matter what you did in life.”

Col. John Keefe, who retired from the Marine Corps in 1977, told a story about the United Kingdom’s Royal Marines reviewing war footage to better understand troop movements. They noted that artillery units included two men who walked away just before a shot was fired. They later learned the tradition served no purpose and was a holdover from the days when someone had to hold horses’ reins so they wouldn’t run away.

“Sometimes as technology moves forward, we are stuck in our old habits,” he said, joking that cellphones remain a mystery to him. “As you learn and acquire new skills, avoid being a horse holder.”

He also reminded them, “We had veterans before we had a Veterans Day.”

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Education Reporter

Education and special projects reporter at The Missoulian.