When one of Erin Doty’s close friends lost her brother, Tom Gilbert, in Iraq, something good came out of it: she met her husband, a marine who was the Gilberts’ casualty assistant officer. Now, years later, she has brought her appreciation of the military to Belle Aire School, where she put on their first Veterans Day assembly Nov. 11.
Doty said she, her husband, Shawn, and their daughter, Aubrey, moved to Downers Grove a year ago, and after settling in, she decided to start attending PTA meetings. As Veterans day approached, she noticed that nothing was planned. She recalled a ceremony she’d attended at her daughter’s former school in Naperville and wondered if something similar could be implemented at Belle Aire.
“I raised my hand and said, ‘Hey, what if we did this?’” Doty said. “Everyone was very open to it, and basically were like, ‘Great, you are nominated to put it together.’”
The event was put into action with the help of another PTA member, Carrie Blonigen.
Doty’s husband opened the event alongside the student council with the Presentation of Colors ceremony. After the colors had been retired, each class did a presentation for their schoolmates and the veterans present; the fifth graders provided a video presentation about the history of Veteran’s Day, and the third and fourth graders sang “America the Beautiful.”
Then, Doty recognized the 20 veterans who were being honored at the event.
“We asked each vet to send pictures, what year they served and who they were a guest of,” she said. “We had grandpas, uncles, aunts — some drove four hours to be a part of this day. It was absolutely heartwarming.”
The veterans discussed why they joined the military and the perks of serving the United States. Some said they joined so they could go to college or because of their family’s history of service, but others joined to fill specific roles. One veteran, Bob Carter, spoke about his work with military-trained German Shepards, who are “trained to sniff out bombs of bad guys.”
The floor was then opened so that students could ask the veterans questions about their service, like how they talk to their families while deployed, what do they do for fun and why did they join the military.
The last student question asked was this: “What is the most meaningful part of serving in the military?” Her husband answered, Doty said, and tearing up, he told the students that the most meaningful part of serving in the military is that some people do not come home from active duty.
He shared Gilbert’s story, and Gilbert’s father, who had come to participate in the assembly, stood to be recognized. The crowd cheered, giving him a standing ovation.
To conclude the event, students lined the hallways of Belle Aire, waving American flags high as the honored veterans walked between them to “Stars and Stripes Forever” blasting through the intercom.
After 81 years of celebrating veterans on Veterans Day, Doty said she thought it was important that her community participated in showing respect to the people who served.
“I wanted Belle Aire to do something,” she said. “There are usually more vets in a community than we even realize.”
Doty said she couldn’t have been prouder of how the event turned out.
“It was an honor to see how everything turned out,” she said. “Service gained a new meaning to me having military in my family, and in knowing Tom Gilbert’s life. I think it’s something we should educate all children in — what it means to be a veteran and how much service and sacrifice is shown.”