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Van Allen honors veterans

Lt. Col. Leland Belding, US Army (center) sits with fellow veterans as second grade students at Van Allen Elementary School–

NORTH LIBERTY — For the second year in a row, second graders and their teachers at Van Allen Elementary School said thanks to the veterans in their lives. Approximately 30 vets mingled in the commons area of the school’s second grade pod, swapping stories and looking over thank-you notes written by the students before being read a poem in their honor.
The veterans, many parents and grandparents of Van Allen students, then deployed among the classrooms to visit with the students, talk about their experiences and answer the students’ questions.
Jack Dillon, a Vietnam veteran who served with the Army’s 1st Signal Brigade was asked why he picked that branch.
“I didn’t pick the Army…they picked me.” Dillon explained the difference between volunteering to serve and waiting to be drafted. “That’s what I did, it was a bad decision, but I got away with it,” he said. He described riding in helicopters, and joked to the students’ delight. “I hate helicopters. I also hate meat loaf. I can’t get into that story…I blame the Army for that too, but I can’t get into that story,” Dillon said with a smile.
Many of the students’ questions dealt with food and how the vets were– or in some cases, were not– able to stay in touch with their families while deployed in Vietnam, as in Dillon’s case, or during more recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. For Dillon, mail call was the primary means of contact with his family, including boxes of cookies from home.
For Carlos and Shannon Medina, both Navy veterans and parents of second grader Anthony Medina, keeping in touch was done by mail and email.
“During the week I would record the children (on video) and send it to him on Friday so that he could see them growing,” Shannon said. “They didn’t have Skype and Facebook then.”
For Keith Wiggins, an Army vet who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, staying in touch included cellphones.
“We were only allowed about three minutes of talk time,” said Wiggins. Later, he had access to computers. “(There were ) 1,200 guys using three computers, so we had 10 or 15 minutes to check and send emails.” Wiggins’ daughter Bailie sat at his feet while he fielded questions about his job as a combat engineer, which he described as “fun, exciting…unpredictable.” Wiggins told the class he came from a long line of veterans, dating all the way back to the Revolutionary War, which brought a gasp of amazement from the students.
While being away from his family was difficult, Wiggins said, “you kind of create a new family. If you’re living with your friends for that long, everyday and every night, and the things you do together, you develop a new family.”
It’s a family he still stays in contact with to this day, Wiggins said.
Jim Miller is Chaplain with American Legion Post 76 in North Liberty and a U.S. Army veteran. His grandson Caleb summed up why he and other veterans were invited to come to the school and relate their stories.
“I wanted him to share out loud that he was in the Army, and the military and stuff. And so everybody got to know that,” said Caleb.
Julie Madden, a second grade teacher at Van Allen, said the purpose of the gathering was to, welcome the veterans, and thank them.
“We want them to be honored by us for their time in service to our country as well as for the sacrifices they made for us,” said Madden.