Vietnam Veteran Tom Wise receives a folded American Flag from Mount Vernon Middle School English Teacher Trudy Debolt on Thursday. Credit: Grant Ritchey

MOUNT VERNON — Mount Vernon Middle School students honored veterans Thursday morning. 

The Veterans Day breakfast hosted over 400 family members, students—200 or so veterans. 

The breakfast, led by Mount Vernon Middle School principal Darin Prince, began in 2018 to honor and invite all veterans for their service. It’s led by middle school students—a purposeful component to the breakfast’s success, Prince said.

“It gives the kids the opportunity to recognize the veterans here,” Prince said. 

A 15-teacher-led committee orchestrates the breakfast—choosing the food, tablecloths, and events.

Credit: Grant Ritchey

During the opening ceremony, students showcased an empty table set for five military branches symbolizing the veterans who couldn’t be there today. 

A slice of lemon symbolizes the veteran’s bitter fate; salt on the bread plate represents the tears of their families and the wine glass is a reminder to have a toast for today’s festivities. 

Mount Vernon Middle School strings and band played patriot-themed songs throughout the breakfast. 

Middle School English teacher Trudy Debolt said Mount Vernon Middle School students thought of 303 different ways to honor fallen servicemen this Veteran’s Day, though it wasn’t her original idea.  

Debolt and the students began reading the book “Cracker! The Best Dog in Vietnam,” harnessing an emotional attachment to the service dog and the fallen soldiers in the 1950 through ’70 war. 

Though the story was about fallen soldiers, Debolt’s students found positive lessons throughout the 200-plus pages. 

Credit: Grant Ritchey

“We end the book by taking on a project each year,” Debolt said. “That project is different. Normally, I know ahead of time what the project will be. This year I did not know and not knowing was frustrating me. This is where fate comes in.”

Debolt’s mother had her 35th class reunion, where Vietnam veteran Tom Wise was one of her classmates. He handed out letters asking those to write a total of 500 letters to the 14 Knox County families whose soldiers were killed in the Vietnam War.

He had already purchased banners with the faces of the 14 soldiers, which will be hung in downtown Mount Vernon from Veterans to Memorial Day.

“He had no trouble raising the money to purchase the banners, but the letter-writing part had become way more challenging,” Debolt said.

During the process, Debolt considered lowering the number of letters, wondering if 300 was possible. 

“Apparently this year I was working with serious blinders on. The perfect project had been handed to me in the form of Tom’s letter and I had students who could help, who could help get those letters done,” Debolt said. “I asked Tom how many letters he still needed to reach his goal of 500. He gave me the perfect answer: if the families receive 10 million letters it could never be enough.”

Wise never gave Debolt a firm goal to hit–so she decided on 300 for all of the sixth grade to complete.

The process of writing letters was difficult, Debolt said, noting she was unsure how to guide them through the process.

“I decided to ask them to write from their hearts. I printed off banner pictures of those 14 Knox County soldiers and had my students walk by each picture and look into each face. We easily wrote 80 letters.”

Soon they were at 125.

Debolt tried telling herself it was enough but each time she walked into her classroom she saw the 14 soldiers– she and her students needed to continue forward.

“That’s when I thought of writing a poem to honor those lives. I shared the poem I wrote with my students and that is when the magic began. Those words my students wrote were so incredibly beautiful. Tears would fall down my face as I read the words,” Debolt said.

One hundred fifty letters turned into 200. Debolt reminded her class those soldiers didn’t quit. Their families didn’t quit either. Even the war didn’t get to quit.

On the final day, Debolt’s class needed to write 303 letters and only one day of class time left before the bell rang and students headed home for the day. Students stayed after school and finished the letters–coming up with new ideas and ways to say thank you.

Credit: Grant Ritchey

While reading the historical fiction novel, students learned those war dogs weren’t brought home. “They were considered by our government at the time to be excess military equipment and excess equipment was left behind to honor those war dogs and all soldiers who fought in that war,” Debolt said.

The gift for Wise was the letter-writing project. His service in the military was his gift and fighting beside his brothers was perhaps the greatest gift of all, Debolt said. “When students leave my room at the end of the year, I want them to leave being better citizens than when they first walked in. I want them to leave knowing they can make a difference. I want them to leave with the passion to create change. I want them to leave loving their country and the sacrifices that got us here today.”

To honor Wise’s commitment, a folded American flag was presented and gifted to him outside the middle school front door with veterans and students surrounding him.

Wise and Debolt hugged one another–a symbol of what’s been accomplished.

This independent, local reporting provided by our Report for America Corps members is brought to you in part by the generous support of the Knox County Foundation and Kokosing.

I am a Report For America corps member at Knox Pages. I report on public education in the county as well as workforce development. I first landed at Knox Pages in June 2022.