“Defending freedom” was the theme of this year’s Kuna High School Veterans Day Assembly Friday. Amid patriotic songs, speeches and tributes, students honored their veteran elders, while veterans asked the next generation to carry on their tradition of service.

“You, Kuna High School, are defenders of freedom today,” said Lt. Col. Jack Sparks, a 22-year Army veteran and chemistry teacher at Renaissance High School, who was the assembly’s honored guest speaker.

Sparks told a crowded gymnasium of students and veterans that the U.S. military’s role is to help oppressed people abroad. That’s why the U.S. military went to Vietnam and Korea, he said. Today, America is fighting a war against terrorism, Sparks said, and its enemies “want to prove the freedoms we have we can’t hold.”

That’s why, when Sparks was stationed in Afghanistan more than a decade ago, the Taliban, an extremist Islamic movement, burned down schools that the military built, Sparks said.

“Education is the biggest source of freedom,” he said.

Donald Atchinson, 64, of Emmett, said during a post-assembly reception that he “loved” the assembly. Atchinson said he is an eighth-generation U.S. military veteran. His family has served dating back to General George Washington’s Continental Army, through the two World Wars and Korean War.

It seemed inevitable that Atchinson would follow the family tradition. However, he struck out on his own in one regard.

“I thought I went rogue,” he said. “My father was Navy, my grandfather was Navy, and I ended up going Air Force.”

It was Atchinson’s first time attending Kuna’s assembly. “It was a brisk ride” at 29 degrees, not including wind chill, on his motorcycle, but it was worth it, he said.

“I loved it,” Atchinson said. “You just look around the room and all these hardcore guys walk around with watery eyes. You have to be in the military to go through this stuff to really know what it is. It goes without words, it’s just in us.”

The assembly was coordinated by Kuna High School’s JROTC (Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps), which performed a presentation of colors, and Kuna High School FFA students, who handed out miniature American flags to veterans and displayed full-sized military branch flags throughout the assembly.

The assembly included several songs by the Kuna High School Combined Choir, Men’s Choir and Wind Ensemble. They performed “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” “We are the Brave” and “A Tribute to Armed Services,” a medley of official U.S. military songs and hymns. Students Dominick Rojas and Kylee Terry performed taps, a ceremonial bugle call.

Kuna High School Associated Student Body President Gavin Heindel was master of ceremonies. Student Ian Williams recited the poem “Missing Man Table,” a tribute to prisoners of war and soldiers missing in action. And student Hayden Kash read the poem “Bravery.”

Rich Porter, 74, of Star attended the Veterans Assembly for the third time.

“I thought it was fantastic, especially the color guard,” Porter said during a reception after the event.

Porter said he served in the U.S. Marine Corps for six years, four years of which he was active duty during the Vietnam War. He joined the military because his father was in the Army.

“I carried on,” he said.

Porter said the appreciation showed to veterans at the assembly made him “kind of jealous” because Vietnam veterans were received differently when they returned from war.

“We did not get anything like this,” he said. “Vietnam was … you got home and the uniform disappeared.”

Kuna High School Principal Brian Graves made closing statements at the assembly and answered whether the next generation would continue to “defend freedom.”

“Are they going to do what they’re supposed to do?” Graves asked. “Our kids are going to make you very proud.”

Ryan Suppe is the Meridian reporter for the Idaho Press. Contact him at 208-465-8119. Follow him on Twitter @salsuppe.

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