HOPATCONG - Veterans from every generation and every military branch were treated to lunch and a salute to their service Monday when Hopatcong High School held its first tribute.
The goal of the event is "to celebrate those folks who have served our country and sacrificed a lot—a lot more than you or I could ever imagine. (We want) to honor those veterans, as well as help our student become more aware of what (Veterans Day) is
about," said Lewis Benfatti, Hopatcong High School's new principal, who organized the day with David Pierson, assistant principal. Veterans Day, Tuesday, is a school holiday for Hopatcong students, and Benfatti said he wants the youngsters to understand why they have off from school.
The sacrifices made by veterans isn't news to about 25 of those students in the audience who stood to be recognized as family members whose lives are profoundly impacted by military service.
Speakers and tributes alternated between energetic musical numbers by the school's choral and band programs.
Sitting in the audience was World War II veteran Robert Klein of Hopatcong who at 88 was the oldest of the dozen veterans who attended with family members.
Klein was drafted in 1944 at age 18 to be an infantry replacement, he said. When he landed in Germany, he traveled on the
famed 40-and-8 freight cars for three days to Southern Germany to join Patton’s army, the 78th Infantry Division at the end of the war.
After the war ended, he entered Berlin with the 78th, which was the second unit to enter the city, after the 82nd Airborne. There, he was lucky enough to be transferred from Infantry to a Headquarters company where he became an Army photographer for the military newspaper, OMGUS (Office of Military Government US) Observer, Klein said.
“It was probably the most interesting time of my life, really,” he said. “The ruins in the city were incredible.”
From the podium, keynote speaker Jason Braase, an Idaho National Guard Army tanker, told the riveting story of his service in Iraq. He volunteered just before Sept. 11, 2001, he said, and went into Iraq in 2004. He described the good the military was doing there—providing safe passage to doctors going to hospitals, teaching Iraqi police officers to be ambassadors to their communities, escorting a million ballots from polling places in the first Iraqi election. A year later, he was injured by an IED and faced 13 surgeries to his leg, he said. He was told he would never walk again, yet he walked onto the stage and stood at the podium to tell his story.