Guests at the Breakfast for Veterans, held at Hamburg Area High School on Veterans Day, Nov. 11, were greeted with the sound of string instruments, the scent of bacon and coffee and an array of flags honoring each branch of the military.
This was the seventh year for the Veterans Day event, which is attended by veterans, active military personnel and their spouses. Many wore hats or pins to indicate their branch of service; a few wore fatigues or full uniforms.
Featured speaker was Dr. Michael Gabriel, a professor of history from Kutztown University. Although his area of academic study is the Revolutionary War, Gabriel spoke instead about the experiences of his father, Fred, a army physician who served during World War II.
During his childhood, Gabriel was vaguely aware of letters his father had stashed away, from his time in the South Pacific.
“They were in a box, and I used to look at them when I was young,” he said, noting that he rediscovered the box about two years ago and noted the letters were starting to deteriorate.
Gabriel began typing the letters as a means of preserving them, and in the process he began putting them in order and adding accompanying photos to the record. In the end, he cataloged 313 letters.
“The letters began to tell the story of a little hospital unit, the 39th Station Hospital,” he said, noting the unit was not large nor of particular significance. “But it gives you a day-to-day view of the war from someone on the ground.”
By reading his father’s correspondences, Gabriel saw the war through a soldier’s eyes. He learned of the importance of letters form home, the impact of world events on the men and how they worried about family back home or stationed abroad.
“The striking thing is, the letters to his parents are quite, quite different then the ones to his siblings,” he explained, noting that his dad wrote positive, “rosy” things to his parents but was more stark and real with his brothers.
To round out his research, Gabriel wrote to the national archives for history on the hospital unit as well as his father’s personal records. He noted that many documents from that era were destroyed during a fire in the 1970s; he was happy to eventually find over 300 pages on his father alone.
The history professor wishes now he had began this project when his father was still alive; Fred Gabriel passed away in 1985. By recording the father’s letters and histories, however, Gabriel learned to know his dad in a new way.
“I found out things about him I never knew,” he explained. “Before, my history of him was: I was his kid, and he was married to my mom.”
Gabriel praised the efforts of Hamburg Area High School in honoring veterans.
Clark “Buddy” Zimmerman, Social Studies Department chair at HAHS and an Air Force veteran, agreed, noting that events like the breakfast help students to make a personal connection with history.
“Our kids are engaged in knowing what the veterans have done for us,” Zimmerman told the breakfast crowd. He noted meeting veterans who have taken part in history is key to staying engaged.
Rod Riegel, a Marine veteran, has been at the breakfast each year since it began. In his four and a half years in the Corps, Riegel was stationed in North Carolina, the Mediterranean and Libya and was active during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
“I like to see the guys, whether we know each other or not,” Riegel said of the group gathered for the breakfast. “We recognize each other. It’s a brotherhood.”
The event opened with the pledge to the American Flag, then to bow their heads for a blessing offered by Pastor Mark Caston of the Bridge Church.
“Thank you to all our veterans, their spouses and their children, for your service to our country. God bless you,” Zimmerman said.
Guests lined up for a hot breakfast while student volunteers wove through the crowd, serving drinks and assisting with plates of food. Many of the students were members of the high school’s military club, which is advised by Gerry Evans, a history teacher and Navy veteran.
As they finished their meal, the crowd enjoyed a performance by Ariel Boundaries, the high school’s vocal ensemble. The group was directed by Ben Watson and sung the National Anthem, “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” and a Military Medley. During the latter, veterans from each branch stood during their portion of the song. The ensemble concluded their performance with an Irish Blessing.