Navy veteran George Unger pulled no punches Nov. 11 when he spoke to Janet Huston's seventh grade social studies class during the 20th annual Veterans Day Assembly at Brandywine Heights Middle School, Topton.
He feared for his life every day of the four years he served aboard a Navy aircraft carrier, one of the most dangerous jobs in the military, the Mertztown resident confided.
Yet, his voice heavy with emotion, Unger described his Navy hitch as a "million dollars worth of experience" that he could not have gotten anywhere else.
Unger was on a panel of six veterans that did a question-and-answer session in the morning segment of the daylong Veterans Day program.
A tradition in Brandywine, the program's highlight was an hour-long tribute to veterans before a packed house of more than 600 people in the school's auditorium.
Clark Hamm, a Vietnam veteran, was presented with the Brandywine Heights Middle School Patriotic Award.
State Sen. Judy Schwank presented the award to Hamm, a machine gunner with the Army's 4th Infantry Division during a 1966-67 tour in Vietnam.
In addition to his military service, Hamm has worked on behalf of veterans in VFW and American Legion posts for decades.
Wearing brilliant red Colonial uniforms, the school's fife and drum corps opened the assembly in "Yankee Doodle Dandy" fashion.
Recalling his grandfather served in a Sherman tank in Europe, Principal Robert Farina declared "veterans always have a home here" in welcoming an estimated 150 veterans in the audience.
Emcee Tom Whalen, a teacher who served in the Army, introduced performances of patriotic anthems by the school's choir and band.
Students from fourth to eighth grade were honored for essays, poems and posters thanking veterans for their service and pointing to the need for improving veterans' benefits.
Cailey Adam and Madison Angstadt, eighth grade students, read original poems. And eighth-grader Gabby Lampron received a rousing ovation for her vocal rendition of "God Bless America."
During the morning panel discussion, which preceded the assembly, veterans extolled the virtues of military service.
A family tradition of military service fueled Jason Trumbauer's desire to join the Navy in 1991. His two grandfathers served in World War II and an uncle served in Vietnam.
An ejector seat mechanic on F-18 fighter planes, Trumbauer would serve aboard five aircraft carriers. "It was a wonderful experience I'd never have gotten in Pennsylvania," said Trumbauer, 46, a Fleetwood resident.
Tracey Gacke of Kutztown, an Air Force veteran, received advanced training in computers.
Scott Uehlinger of Topton graduated from the Merchant Marine Academy and rose to the rank of commander before retiring in 2014. "I served on every sea on that map," he said, pointing to a classroom bulletin board.
Carl Wischner of Mertztown joined for patriotic reasons, but ended up working on Minuteman missiles with nuclear warheads. In the dead of night, he witnessed Atlas and Titan missiles being launched on a test range in California.
"They were top secret, so the tests were conducted at night," he said. "When they took off, it was like an earthquake."
"The Air Force," Wischner added, "made a professional out of you."
Tess Woloszanski, who teaches health and physical education, coordinated the program.
Superintendent Andrew Potteiger, who served in Kosovo with the Pennsylvania National Guard, commended students for their "deep reflection and insight" in honoring veterans.
"Students gained a deeper understanding of what it means to be a veteran," he said.
"The unique expression of personal sacrifice by our veterans," Potteiger said in closing remarks, "is a reminder that freedom comes at a cost."