Greencastle-Antrim students pay tribute to veterans

RACHEL BARTLETT, Echo Pilot intern
Members of the G-AHS Concert Choir sang a song that was written as a tribute to alumnus Master Sergeant Benjamin F. Bitner. Photos of Bitner, who was killed in action in 2011, were shown during the musical tribute.

Veterans Day is a nationwide holiday to commemorate our past and present soldiers for the sacrifices they make for our country. To honor them and everything they have done, most schools and businesses are closed, but the Greencastle-Antrim School District stays open.

Officials feel students can learn more about veterans by being in school and attending an assembly dedicated to remembering their sacrifices. Ellen Kirkner, a teacher at the high school who coordinates the assembly every year, mentioned, “I think it's really important for our students to understand and appreciate the role of veterans, especially as it pertains to the history of our country.”

Throughout the high school assembly, the VFW veterans led the ceremonial posting of the colors, the concert choir sang a few songs, the band provided music, the winner of the Voice of Democracy contest read his speech, and there was a guest speaker, usually a veteran from the community. Ronalyn Bingaman, choir director, said, “Every student who participated today brought honor to the men and women who have given their lives in service to our country.”

Musical tributes

Scott Hansen introduced the concert band and choir before their performances. The band, with director Aaron Griesser, played a Musical Tribute to the Armed Forces  and a few other patriotic songs to begin the assembly. The choir also sang two songs, A Mystic Chord, which was filled with words from President Lincoln's Inaugural Address of 1861, and Hero's Pledge, a song written and composed by Bingaman.

After the tragic passing of Master Sergeant Benjamin F. Bitner, a graduate of Greencastle-Antrim High School who was killed in action in Afghanistan in 2011, Bingaman “wanted to do something to honor his memory.” Bingaman said, “God put upon my heart the tune, the harmonies, and the lyrics for what would become Hero's Pledge, and it came together in a couple of days.” The song which describes the sacrifices a soldier makes and the Pledge of Allegiance serves as a unique way for honoring our local fallen soldier.

“Today the Greencastle-Antrim High School Concert Choir came together and did a wonderful job of bringing the music to life,” Bingaman finished.

Veteran message

The guest speaker for the 2014 assembly was Captain Amanda Zaleski. Along with serving in the United States Army Reserves, she also teaches Elements of Chemistry and Science Enrichment at the high school. After completing two deployments, Iraq in 2003 and Afghanistan in 2011, she has earned the title of Company Commander of 139 soldiers for the 665 Engineer Company stationed in Brookville.

Throughout her presentation, Zaleski explained her life leading up to where she is now and the experiences she went through to get here. Between her junior and senior year of high school, she attended basic training at Fort Jackson. She initially joined the military as a way to pay for college, needing financial support because she was raised by a single mom. After graduating from high school in 2003, she started college at Shippensburg University. After only being there for a few months, she was deployed to Iraq to support the War on Terrorism in November and was gone for 18 months. Her job as an Intelligence Analyst was to create maps for her fellow soldiers and analyze the enemy situation.

Returning to Shippensburg in the fall of 2005, she completed her Bachelor's Degree in Chemistry and graduated from college in 2009. Her “ultimate goal was to get that degree in chemistry.” She added, “That degree is the best thing that ever happened to me until I got married.” After marrying in July 2011, she was once again deployed in December 2011 to Afghanistan, where she was stationed for 12 months.

There, she was an Executive Officer (the second in command) and her job was to clear road bombs. The theme of Zaleski's speech was that “you never know when you may need those connections” and that you can accomplish anything you set your mind to. She showed this by explaining how Afghanis saved her life and the lives of her soldiers by assisting them with bomb locations, all because her group was nice and gave them water.

Even though Zaleski originally joined the military for college money, she stays in because she is proud to serve, and she loves what she does. “I know I fulfilled my commitment and my duty” and it's an “amazing feeling.” In February, she will have completed her 13th year of service.

Kirkner commented, “Our speaker was outstanding and I think she serves as an excellent role model for our students. She spoke about how important it is for students to connect to others and to take every opportunity that is offered. I really like how she was able to connect to the students on a personal level.”

Voice of Democracy

The Voice of Democracy contest is sponsored by the local VFW, and this year's theme is “Why Veterans are Important to our Nation's History and Future.” Jack Lindeman placed first in the contest and gave his speech towards the end of the assembly. He created the image of America being a house and our veterans the foundation. “Without our foundation, this house would be very different than how we see it today.” He went on to explain how the foundation is “unbreakable” and how we should honor our veterans for building such a great country.

Kirkner felt the assembly “went very well” and she was “pleased by everyone's speeches, the music, and the singing.” The 2014 Veteran's Day Assembly was once again educational and eye opening to the high school students of all the sacrifices soldiers and their families make on a daily basis for the rest of us. Kirkner finished, “I think it's great to see the local veterans from various generations come into the school and I hope they feel the respect and appreciation that our school community shows them.”