Flags filled the gymnasium of Notre Dame Catholic Elementary School Friday morning as kindergarten through 12th-grade students, school staff and community members gathered to honor the service and sacrifices made by local veterans.
About 50 area veterans and their families were recognized during the honor program, which the school puts on each year on or near Veteran's Day.
Each stood as Assistant Principal Judy Simon read their name, rank and the wars and military operations in which they served, including World War II, Desert Storm and the Iraq, Korean, Afghanistan and Gulf wars.
U.S. Army Col. Pat Coen, superintendent of the Burlington School District and keynote speaker for the event, served from 1986 to 2006 in both the Gulf and Afghanistan wars before retiring. By way of introduction, Principal Bill Maupin listed a number of accolades Coen received throughout his military career. Among them were the State Leadership Ribbon, the National Defense Service Ribbon, the Combat Action Badge, a Bronze Star, Afghanistan Campaign Medal and the War on Terrorism Service Medal.
"I am very humbled and honored to be here today," Coen said into the microphone as his father, Robert Coen, a 1957 class vice president of Notre Dame, watched from a seat on the gymnasium floor. "This means a lot to me to be able to stand before my father and speak."
It was about a minute into his speech that Coen abandoned the mic to tell the audience about his last assignment of duty, when he was an embedded advisor to the Afghan National Army.
"I had to do a lot of training and I was immersed in Islam," Coen's voice boomed from the stage. "It was a challenge. Having been raised a Catholic, I had to go live with 611 Islamic soldiers, and I never once lost my faith. I found a lot of strength in that."
He then encouraged the students to find ways to challenge themselves and surround themselves with people who will make them better before speaking on the sacrifices made by military servicemen, servicewomen and their families.
"They have no idea where they're going to end up," he said. "They have no idea what they're going to be doing, but they go anyway. They go with bravery and a sense of service to God and country, and that is what you're celebrating today. All these gentlemen who sat right here and stood up in front of you today hugged and kissed their mothers and walked away."