04/30/09 — Military appreciation: For some students, the gratitude is personal

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Military appreciation: For some students, the gratitude is personal

By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on April 30, 2009 1:46 PM

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Former Miss Aycock and Miss Goldsboro Jill Howell sings "America, Keep Holding Onto God's Hand" during the celebration

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Charles B. Aycock sophomore James Hatfield gets emotional as he shares some of his experiences growing up as a military child during a military family appreciation celebration inside the school's gymnasium Wednesday.

Growing up in a military family, James Hatfield equated the Air Force with the notion that "daddy is moving, so you move."

"This is the most rigorous test a family can go through, to be in a military family and stay together," he said.

So when Charles B. Aycock High School introduced a military support group for students earlier this year, his initial thought, he said, was, "Here's another pity party for me."

The sophomore has come to understand the important role his father played by serving his country for 22 years before retiring in February.

But on Wednesday, during a military family celebration at the school, Hatfield's thoughts turned to the "silent soldier," spouses who keep the household going during absences of the one serving. He pointed out that he was not a military wife, drawing laughter from the crowd.

Then he turned serious, reflecting on all the moves he had made as a military child, all his mother's sacrifices along the way. Choking up as he spoke, he apologized to his classmates for the tears, then pressed on.

"It's a team effort, and you don't realize that until you have groups like that at Aycock," he said.

Then he acknowledged his mom, who was in the audience. Standing proudly, she mouthed, "I love you" to her son.

Hatfield is just one of the growing group of military-connected students and staff at the school, said Renee Dilda, one of the school's counselors.

"We did a grassroots survey back in September," she said. "We're looking at about 25 percent of our population right now being military-connected."

Mrs. Dilda has a special connection with them. Her father served 24 years in the Air Force.

"Growing up military can mean a lot of things. It's a common bond that most of us in this room share," she said during Wednesday's assembly.

But these days, growing up military takes on a unique significance, she noted.

"This military-connected generation has come to know war over their lifetime," she said, as well as the stresses of deployment, grief and loss.

There's junior Joanne Choi, clad in an ROTC uniform as she sang the national anthem, whose father is currently serving in Afghanistan, Mrs. Dilda said, and a senior who will graduate next month whose mother just deployed.

"She won't be there to help him move into his dorm room at college," she said.

Mrs. Dilda has seen her own role expand beyond academic counseling, with growing numbers of students whose parents might be gone for months at a stretch.

"We as educators and as a community owe it to them to support them and acknowledge what they're going through," she said. "They are the most resilient and adaptable people you will ever meet. But isn't it comforting to know that someone out there is in tune with what you're going through?"

Witnessing the military population at the high school grow by leaps and bounds over the past five years, she floated the idea of a military support group for students.

"Within 24 hours, I had over 35 students standing at my door," she said. "I think I hit on a need."

She is committed to lending support, noting that the school also has 26 staff members with military connections.

"We have spouses and children who are currently deployed," she said. "So our message is this -- we care, we understand and we are here to listen and advocate on your behalf."

Being part of the military support group has been a boost to junior Quentin Bannon, who also spoke during the assembly. Both of his parents plus eight family members have served in some branch of the service.

"I only had to move three times, and almost every time have had family nearby," he said before reading a poem entitled, "Change."

"Being open to change is very important and having a celebration like this shows military children that you're not alone, you're not the only one dealing with it and there are other people out there," he said.

The hour-long tribute also recognized veterans, active military and the strong ROTC program at Aycock. The school's jazz band played patriotic music and Jill Howell, a former Miss Aycock and Miss Goldsboro, sang "America, Keep Holding Onto God's Hand," a medley performed before the backdrop of a massive American flag.

Jamie Livengood, military counselor for the school district, had already attended a deployment earlier that morning at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base and said the two events had been very moving.

"Almost two million children in the United States currently have a parent serving in the military and North Carolina as a state has one of the largest populations in the U.S.," she said. "Wayne County has over 2,000 military students and Wayne County Public Schools has partnered with Seymour Johnson and the National Guard to form the military child coalition since 2007.

"That's why we are here -- to celebrate Month of the Military Child, to celebrate families and all the sacrifices that you make, and to show you the appreciation that you deserve."

Dr. Earl Moore, Aycock principal, called Seymour Johnson an integral part of the community.

"They're not just a base over there. They're very dear and special to us," he said.

Stepping out of his principal role briefly, he told the gathering, "We are praying for you. We are praying for your children, for those who have been deployed, for our troops. We're praying for your safety."