WALKER — The word “service” was central to a salute to veterans hosted by Walker High School on Saturday.
The event honored men who defended their nation while in the military service and was hosted, to a large degree, by high school students who were learning what it means to be of service to others.
Principal Jason St. Pierre, himself a Navy veteran, said that while the main focus of the day’s activities was to honor military veterans, he used the event to help teach his students what it means to serve others. St. Pierre said that about 50 Walker High students were involved in planning the day and seeing it to a successful conclusion.
St. Pierre said that the students embraced the salute to the veterans and that it gave them a sense of pride in being able to serve others who had served their country.
The day’s program began with a presentation in the school’s gym, which had been decorated by students. When a veteran entered the gym, he or she was greeted by a long line of student JROTC Navy Sea Cadets, JROTC Marines and members of the school’s Future Farmers of America chapter. The students saluted the veterans and offered quick words of thanks to the honorees.
The formal program was opened by FFA member Layni LeBlanc.
“We are blessed because we have the privilege of living in a free country and we can live without fear because of the veterans who have kept our nation free,” LeBlanc said. “We are all grateful for what our military has done in the past, what they do in the present, and what they will continue to do in the future.”
The Walker High School Choir sang the national anthem and offered musical selections during the hourlong ceremony. Walker High School’s musical talent was on display with duet and solo numbers being presented by various students.
Kelly Becnel, Walker High School agriculture teacher, said that the students had put in many hours of hard work and had held meetings to discuss how they would honor the veterans. She said that the planning of the event was a learning experience for her students. “They put their hearts into this,” she said.
St. Pierre, in his welcoming address to the gathering, reminded the audience that “freedom is never free.”
“It is important that we honor our veterans who so selflessly served our country,” St. Pierre said. “Those who put on the uniform did what their country asked of them and they asked for little in return. It is only proper that we show our appreciation for what they did for all of us through service to our country.”
The session’s keynote speaker, Marine veteran Kenneth Altazan of Baton Rouge, opened his talk by noting that veterans of the Vietnam War were looked down upon when they came home from combat in that distant nation.
“Vietnam was an ugly war, and it was the first war that everyone could watch on television,” Altazan said. “War is not pretty, and what the people at home saw left them feeling unappreciative for what our military did over there. Only lately have those negative feelings changed, and this is good. The veterans of the Korean and Vietnam wars knew what it was like to not be appreciated so they didn’t hesitate to welcome home the veterans of the Mideast wars, and I know that this was appreciated.”
Altazan, who recently, and belatedly, received the Navy Cross, the second-highest honor that can be bestowed for heroism, was the crew chief on a medical evacuation helicopter and flew hundreds of missions in Vietnam. He and his crew were credited with carrying out 10 wounded and two dead from an active fire zone in a single day.
Altazan said that late one evening, when he and a fellow Marine were working on their helicopter to prep it for the next day, the friend told him to go rest while he finished the job. Minutes later, Altazan recalled, a rocket slammed into the hangar, killing his best friend.
“I still miss that man, and I still care for all of our veterans,” Altazan said. “To me, every veteran has a first name, and that name is ‘hero.’ It is great that we have Veterans Day once a year, but I suggest that you honor veterans 365 days out of the year. When they were serving their country, they did it every day and they should be honored that way.
“We live in uncertain times and it is sometimes hard to figure out where our place is in the world of today. We cannot police the entire world, but we can and we must defend our nation when called upon to do so. We must also stay strong and we must have the support of the families back home. A unified America is no one to mess with,” he concluded.
Following the formal presentations, the veterans, along with the family members and guests, were treated to lunch in the school’s cafeteria. Junior ROTC members, FFA students and cheerleaders served the meal to the visitors. Each veteran was presented with a jar of candy and a personal, handwritten note of thanks from an FFA member.
Several veterans expressed their appreciation for the tribute paid by Walker High School. Gene Schexnayder, of Walker, who served in the Air Force for four years in the early 1960s, said he appreciated the students’ efforts.
“It’s always great to see our veterans honored,” said Schexnayder, who worked in supply. He said that part of his time in the service was spent on a remote base in Alaska.
Lehman Riddle, one of a group of veterans who were brought to the event from the Louisiana War Veterans Home in Jackson, said he enjoyed the program. Riddle was an infantryman in the Army in the early 1960s and saw duty overseas in Germany.
The chief cook for the Veterans Day dinner, James Window, spent more than 30 years in the Navy. Window said that he saw duty on 17 different ships and served around the world. A machinist mate, Window retired as a chief petty officer. He said he became a “chef” after leaving the Navy. Window said that numerous organizations and businesses in the Walker area donated food items and money for the special meal prepared in honor of the veterans.
Speakers included Livingston Parish President Layton Ricks, U.S. Sen. Bill Cassidy and Walker Mayor Rick Ramsey.
Ricks pointed out that many of the older veterans were called to service through the draft system that existed throughout World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War.
“When the president of the United States called these men to war, many did not really want to go,” Ricks said. “However, because of a sense of duty, they served and they served honorably and because they were so unselfish, because they gave so much of themselves, we continue to enjoy the freedoms we embrace today.”
Ricks encouraged the veterans to tell their stories about their time in the service to young people so that when their time to serve comes, they will be better prepared and ready to continue the traditions of the nation’s military services.
Ramsey welcomed the veterans and guests to the city and said that Walker has had a long tradition of honoring its veterans.
Cassidy talked about the U.S. Veterans Affairs Office and his commitment to providing services to veterans. He said the goal of the VA is to be of maximum service to veterans who are in need of special care and assistance.
“If you have an issue, let the VA know about it,” Cassidy said. “The best way we can help you is for you to let us know what you need.”
St. Pierre said the program was meaningful to both the veterans and his students.
“We wanted to honor our veterans and at the same time we wanted our students to learn more about what military service means and its importance to our nation,” he said. “Our students are the next generation and the time will come when they are called to serve our country in uniform. I think that our veterans really enjoyed the day and it was especially rewarding for our students. Today, they had a chance to see something greater than themselves. Instead of ‘Give me, give me, give me,’ it was, ‘We are going to give something good back to some very deserving people, our veterans.’ All told, the day was a big success in many ways.”