Ron Bettencourtt focused his eyes downward as he read the resolution in front of him.
If he had looked into the audience, he would have seen dozens of St. Tammany Parish schoolchildren and just as many men and women who, like him, are military veterans. And seeing those people would likely have caused the school board representative to break down.
But even with his gaze averted from those gathered for the school system’s tribute to veterans on Nov. 2 at the C.J. Schoen Administrative Complex in Covington, Bettencourtt couldn’t keep the memories from filling his mind.
He remembered friends and fellow patriots. He remembered young men, who like him, grew up in Mandeville in the late 1960s, but who didn’t return from violent battles fought thousands of miles from home.
Bettencourt remembered, and then his voice cracked with emotion. He paused for a few seconds, swallowed hard and then finished reading aloud the School Board resolution that remembered veterans, including those who gave their lives for liberty.
Reading the resolution has been an annual duty for Bettencourtt since he was elected to represent the Mandeville-area’s District 10 of the parish School Board. And as he told schools Associate Superintendent Pete Jabbia after the program, sometimes it’s an easier task than others.
“Once every couple of years, something hits me and I choke up,” said Bettencourtt, a Navy veteran who served four active tours of duty during the Vietnam War.
The purpose of the annual Veterans Day program isn’t to elicit tears — although it often does. Rather, the ceremony is a chance to remember Americans who have answered the call to military service through the years. And in particular, it is a chance to honor veterans who are employees of the school system.
Several dozen of them made their way to the Schoen Complex for the program. Many were dressed in full military uniform, and they stood proudly as the Fontainebleau Junior High Band, led by Director Jessica Lizana, played the hymn of each branch of the armed forces during a musical salute.
Lakeshore High JROTC Army Cadets presented the colors, Slidell High’s Alice Santiago led the crowd in the Pledge of Allegiance and Mandeville High’s Agigail Watson sang "The Star Spangled Banner." There also was a performance of ‘Yankee Doodle’ by the Lyon Elementary third grade choir, and Covington High students Oscar Jimenez and Kelsey Fussell read patriotic letters they wrote with veterans in mind.
Ernie Fussell was on hand to hear his granddaughter read the letter she penned as part of her English III AP class at Covington. He had been a student at Schoen long before it was the school system’s headquarters, and he’s also an Army vet who served overseas in 1969. That combination of factors made the ceremony particularly poignant for him.
“We should never forget,” Fussell said. “It’s very important.”
Master Sgt. Chris Guthrie, a Navy JROTC instructor at Slidell High, said the ceremony was special because it showed veterans are appreciated not only for their military service, but also for the role they play in molding today’s students.
“I take a lot of pride because even if a kid is not interested in the military, we have a lot of them come to us from outside of the program who talk to either myself or (Capt. Jimmie Jones) wanting to talk about various things,” Guthrie said. “Whether they’re considering the military or just asking our advice, we are proud they come to us.”
Fontainebleau High’s Lee Lambert played "Taps" on trumpet to close the ceremony, but Bettencourtt said lessons learned in the military don’t end.
“When you reflect on it, you’re glad you served your country,” he said. “I tried to continue that when I got back into civilian life ... We’re supposed to serve others. The military, it instills a bit of discipline in you. It lends itself to you being responsible.”
Jabbia, who led the ceremony, said students can look to veterans as examples of how to be responsible in school and in life.
“For veterans to be educators and for their students to see the way they conduct themselves is very, very important,” Jabbia said. “They’ve walked the walk and they can tell the students about it firsthand.”