OAHS honors its military veterans
● By Steven Hoffman
By Steven Hoffman
Oxford Area High School alumni who served in the U.S. military now have a lasting tribute to their service as a plaque was officially unveiled during a ceremony at the school on Nov. 8.
High school senior Kassidy England spent more than a year compiling and researching the names of Oxford Area High School alumni who have served in the U.S. military and planning the dignified ceremony to honor them. Each veteran's name is engraved on the plaque, along with his or her graduating year, and the branch of the military that the person served in. The wooden plaque with brass plates will be prominently displayed in the high school. England also collected photos, newspaper clippings, and other military memorabilia of local servicemen and servicewomen that is on temporary display near the plaque.
The ceremony, which attracted hundreds of people, was an opportunity for the Oxford community to unite to honor military veterans.
In her introductory speech, England explained how she decided to dedicate her project to veterans.
“I am so appreciative of the sacrifices these men and women make for our country’s freedom, and this project is a token of my appreciation,” England explained.
Speaking directly to those who served she said, “You are my heroes.”
Oxford resident John Thompson grew up in nearby Cochranville and started his training to enter the U.S. Navy in 1997. Thompson's family had a tradition of military service: His grandfather served as a Navy Seabee during World War II and his father was a machinist mate on the USS Forrestal in the early 1970s.
Thompson completed his training and was assigned to the USS Cole. In 1998, he completed his first deployment overseas. Between 1998 and 2000, he was assigned to operations in the Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean. Then, on Aug. 8, 2000, he was sent out for his second overseas deployment.
On the morning of Oct. 12, the USS Cole and its crew members entered the harbor of Aden, Yemen. At approximately 11:18 a.m., a small boat approached on port side. It was disguised as a trash boat. But terrorists on board the small boat detonated a massive 700-pound explosive, causing a 40-foot by 60-foot gash in the USS Cole. Thompson said that they had to work frantically to save the ship.
Seventeen of Thompson’s shipmates died that fateful day.
The ceremony reached an emotional apex when Thompson read the names of the seventeen men and women who made the ultimate sacrifice for their country.
Thompson told the audience, “I would like to leave you with a quote. It best describes how I feel about my shipmates I served with. It was written by Sergeant Mike Ranney in a letter to Major Richard Winters. You might remember them from the 'Band of Brothers' book and HBO mini-series.
[Ranney wrote]:“In thinking back on the days of East Company, I am treasuring my remark to a grandson who asked, Grandpa, were you a hero in the war?”
“No, I answered, but I served with a company of heroes.”
The next guest speaker was Ken Woodward, the retired Oxford Area High School principal. Woodward said that the veterans embody tradition, excellence, productivity, responsibility, and dedication, and noted that, while not all the service men and women heard President John F. Kennedy’s famous inaugural address, they all followed his call to “ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”
Woodward said that the display will prompt learning by high school students in the future as they seek to find out about the Oxford students who went on to serve their country.
“Questions will be asked. Stories will be told,” Woodward explained.
The ceremony also included the Color Guard of the Lancaster County Young Marines, Girl Scouts performing “America the Beautiful,” and student Abby Rush reading the poem “A Soldier.” Then U.S. veteran Vernon Ringler and Woodward read the names of all the servicemen and servicewomen who are Oxford alumni.
Next, Oxford PTO president Christine Peabody announced that the PTO was accepting the responsibility of compiling and adding to the names on the plaque in the future.
“We owe it to our active duty men and women and the veterans to honor them,” said Peabody.
England reached that same conclusion in 2013 when she was working on attaining the Girl Scout Gold Award, the highest award that a Girl Scout can earn, and one that just five percent of all Girl Scouts receive, and she came up with the idea of establishing this tribute to veterans. She used social media, emails, and sources at the Oxford Public Library to collect the names of local veterans. There is no searchable database that would allow someone to identify all local veterans, so England relied on local residents to share with her names of family members and friends who served in the military.
During the process of gathering these names, she heard many interesting anecdotes and touching stories from the veterans and their families. Many veterans expressed their gratitude that she was undertaking such a project.
The ceremony itself was dedicated in loving memory to four Oxford alumni who were killed in action: Robert Davis, Edward C. Vanover, Kyle Joseph Renehan, and Anthony Lee Williams.
England said that Davis’ family, in particular, was very moved by the effort to establish a lasting tribute to Oxford veterans.
Oxford Mayor Geoff Henry issued a proclamation naming Nov. 8 as Oxford Area High School Alumni Veterans Day. He also offered a proclamation commending England for her efforts.
“It’s all about community,” Henry said. “Kassidy did a wonderful job of pulling everyone together to honor those who served.”
After all the speeches, the veterans in attendance all stood up and cheered England. Without her, there would not have been a ceremony or a lasting tribute to their service.
The plaque was then unveiled and the veterans and family members had the opportunity to find their names on the display. Everyone was unabashedly enthusiastic about the tribute.
“It's a great idea,” said U.S. Army veteran Richard Morton, who traveled from New Jersey for the day.
“I thought it was a fantastic program,” said Brenda Cass, whose son, Andrew, is in the military. “I think it’s great that they have done this. I’m hoping that the PTO can keep up with adding our veterans’ names in the future.”
Randy Teel, a veteran and member of the American Legion for more than two decades, said that it was time that someone did this for the servicemen and servicewomen in the Oxford area. There had previously been a plaque for World War II veterans at the Oxford Presbyterian Church green in the center of town, he said, but the whereabouts of that plaque are currently unknown.
Oxford resident Buzz Dorety, a member of the Class of 1951 who served in the Army, said that one thing that he likes about the project is that it honors veterans from the past, but the names of veterans in the future can also be added.
Everyone marveled at how impressive it was for someone England’s age to take on a project like this and organize such an impressive ceremony.
“It was a tremendous event,” said Lawrence Davidson, the director of the county’s Office of Veterans Affairs. “There's something about this kind of community activity that is very powerful.”
State Rep. John Lawrence said, “Kassidy England has truly done a remarkable job. Not only has she brought long overdue recognition to veterans who graduated from Oxford High School, she united the community to honor their service at this very moving ceremony. Kassidy has left a legacy through her Girl Scout Gold project that will benefit our area for many years.”
If you, a friend, or loved one is an Oxford alumni and a U.S. military veteran, contact firstname.lastname@example.org or leave a telephone message for England at the high school to be added to the display.