More than 100 area military veterans took a seat on the floor of the Don Coleman Coliseum on Nov. 11 as Spring Forest Middle School marked its 19th annual school wide gathering to honor the men and women who served protecting America.
A site for athletic events and other big programs, the district coliseum hosted its first-ever Veterans Day program. Spring Forest Middle moved to the venue after years of similar all-school veterans gatherings in its campus gym.
As student enrollment and community interest by veterans and their families has increased, the school had to find a larger space – evidence that this gathering has gained a supporting audience across west Houston.
The step up into the coliseum was not lost on organizers or event participants. A campus counselor, Jana Gwinn, helped organize the first middle school veterans program after the 2001 terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C.
“Personally, I loved having the event at Don Coleman Coliseum,” said Gwinn, now a 35-year district employee. “The staff here was so amazing and accommodating, and it was wonderful to have adequate space and parking.”
The coliseum program began with breakfast for veterans and their families. At an upper-level plaza table one such family gathered – Sophie Bryant, a new sixth-grader, along with her dad, Paul, a district communications staff member, and his father, Larry Bryant.
The elder Bryant, who served as a petty officer on the USS Des Moines, a flagship in the 6th Fleet sailing the Mediterranean after World War II, likes how vets today are honored. The Vietnam War and its divisions occurred soon after his service.
He’s proud that military honor and recognition are back. “It’s commendable,” he said. “One of the disappointing things in my life was how Vietnam veterans were treated. As a soldier, you don’t decide what you will or you won’t do. You can be shot for disobeying an order. It’s ludicrous to me that so many kids who returned from Vietnam were not honored.”
Down on the coliseum floor, seventh-grader Nate Bruso stood alongside his own grandfather, Allan Warner, an Army vet who has attended this event three times.
“I think the recognition given here is special,” he said. Like many teens, Nate was unaware until a family conversation that this granddad had been a military man.
Spring Forest’s Veterans Day Celebration is designed to honor each attendee as they are called out publicly by name and branch of service, rising up from their floor seats. The names of 103 veterans were called out this year.
The celebration-style program includes a veterans procession, music provided by student orchestra, band and choir, and single trumpet renditions of “Reveille” as well as the heartfelt and emotional “Taps.”
In addition to about 1,000 students and teachers, all bused to the coliseum, this event attracted many district leaders, including Superintendent Jennifer Blaine, Ed.D., senior staff members and several Board members.
“I want to say ‘Thank you!’ on behalf of Spring Branch ISD and the Spring Forest community,” Principal Raymorris Barnes told the gathered military group. “The commitment you have made is a testimony to what truly makes America great. We know that freedom is not free, and you have put aside cultural, racial and political differences to rally around the ideals that set this country apart from any other country in the world.”
“It is truly a privilege to honor America and our local heroes,” Barnes also said.
Since its start, this middle school event has grown into one of the largest held in west Houston, drawing dozens at first – and then hundreds – of regional military veterans and their families to the Memorial-area campus.
Spring Forest Middle’s event is student-led. Veterans Day masters of ceremony students included Sophia Benner, Caroline Graham, Anna Hoskovec, Madeline Molly, Jona Morford and Erin Sakolosky.
Once again, Texas A&M University representatives with Patriot Paws, a service-dog related group based in Rockwall, attended along with their well-mannered service dogs. A school service project raised just over $6,000 this year; the five-year total raised by students is more than $40,000 for the service organization.
Event guest speaker was Lt. Col. Damon “Sam” Robins, a Special Forces “Green Beret” officer and the recent commander of the Houston Recruiting Battalion.
Lt. Col. Robins deployed and commanded Army units in the Global War on Terrorism response to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, also known as Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF). He commanded U.S. troops in Iraq, and supported operations in Iraq and Syria.
He received the Purple Heart following an IED blast in Afghanistan, one of seven combat rotations. He was also awarded four Bronze Stars, two in Iraq and two in Afghanistan.
Under a speech titled “#Service”, Lt. Col. Robins encouraged teens gathered in the coliseum to do more for others in whatever adult position or job they attain.
“The best way to thank a veteran and to honor their sacrifice of service is to live a life worthy of sacrificing for,” said Lt. Col. Robins said, who then repeated that call to service. “As a young person, you have your whole life ahead of you, and you get to live it in the best nation on earth. Live a life that is exceptional.”
“With all your God given talents and gifts,” he also said, “live your life in service to others, whether it is in the military, in business, a homemaker, as a minister, a teacher, a first responder, or construction worker. Whatever it is, do it in such a way that you are always seeking to make others better. Don’t settle for mediocrity, and don’t do it alone.”
Spring Forest Middle’s PTA has supported this event since its beginning. Bobcat Sponsors this year include: Melanie White: Re/Max Westside Realtors; Jennings Orthodontics; Chick-fil-A (Memorial at Dairy Ashford); Laird Law Firm; J. Carter Breed Properties; Wendy Swantkowski, DDS; Raising Cane’s; Town & Country Orthodontics; and American Wheel & Tire.
Veterans Day donations by local families and businesses include: Karen and Jim Martin/BHGRE Gary Greene; Chick-fil-A; Starbucks; Panera Bread; Face Paint by Stormy; and Houston Delicioso Catering.
Separate, smaller campus-based Veterans Day events were also held at several SBISD schools this year.