Addressing a captive audience of several hundred people Thursday morning at Ox Ridge Elementary School in Darien, a veteran said the U.S. Marine Corps taught him how to take care of those who served with him.

“My men were my life and every time I lost one, it was like a piece of your life,” he said. “I will never forget any of them and I think about them every day of my life.”

About 30 veterans came to the Ox Ridge Elementary School’s 2019 Veterans Day celebration, traveling from all over the United States. Veterans at the event served in the Army, Marines, Navy, Air Force and Coast Guard.

Ox Ridge began having a Veterans Day ceremony in 2001 in one of its kindergarten classrooms and it has evolved from there.

Many members of the veterans’ families were also at the event, as well as students and parents from Ox Ridge School.

Elected officials in attendance were First Selectman Jayme Stevenson and Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff as well as State Rep. Matt Blumenthal, and Sen. Carlo Leone, who are both veterans themselves.

The veterans got to share their stories and answer questions from students.

One described how much the experience had changed his life.

“I joined the Marine Corps and all of sudden, I had 100 young men who looked at me and said, ‘Get me home, lieutenant.’ My entire life changed at that moment,” the veteran said. “It’s a total reversal of life to that point, and it’s a fantastic training for the rest of your life. [After serving], I took care of my secretary and I took care of the people that worked for me, always.”

Ox Ridge Assistant Principal Christina Ulreich spoke about the history of Veterans Day, which used to be called Armistice Day.

“The first Armistice Day was originally set as a holiday to honor the end of World War I on Nov. 11, 1918,” she said. “For several years after this date in 1918, the United States observed or commemorated Armistice Day, honoring the veterans of World War I.”

Ulreich said that by 1926, 27 states had made Armistice Day a legal holiday. However, it wasn’t until 1938 that Nov. 11 became a legal federal holiday.

“The U.S. Congress decided to amend the act of 1938 by changing the word ‘armistice’ to the word ‘veterans,’” she said. “From that point forward, Nov. 11 became a day to honor all veterans.”

Veterans at the event spanned all ages and many wars, serving from as far back as the 1960s. Many are parents and grandparents of students at Ox Ridge.

Each veteran was acknowledged individually, with the wars they served in, the positions they held, the responsibilities they had, where they were stationed, and awards or commendations they received, as well as their careers after serving.

Blumenthal served as an infantry officer in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve, commanding a rifle platoon. Leone served in the Air Force from 1981 to 1987.

Darien resident Sharad Samy, who was also honored at the event, is a member of VFW (Veterans of Foreign Wars) and served in the U.S. Army during Operation Enduring Freedom.

Students sang patriotic songs including “Anchors Away,” “Yankee Doodle,” and “You’re a Grand Old Flag.”

In response to the question of why they decided to serve, one veteran said, “Being an athlete, I wanted to challenge myself. My grandfather was in World War II. My father was in Vietnam. I was attracted to the competitiveness of it, a sense of camaraderie, testing myself.”

Another said he joined “to protect those that couldn’t protect themselves. I felt like it was the right thing to do.”

Other questions they were asked included how their life changed when they entered the military, challenges they faced, and what their training was like.

In response, one veteran said the Ranger School “was the hardest thing that I ever did.”

“The whole idea of Ranger School is to simulate a war condition. The way they simulate a wartime mission is depriving you of food and depriving you of sleep,” he said.

He shared a story where, after a few days of not sleeping, he was walking through the forest in the middle of the night in single file and began to hallucinate.

“Every once in a while the leader would stop the group and check the map and everybody would stop take a knee,” he said. “They would throw their big rucksack ... I saw the guy in front of me stop and throw down his rucksack so I stopped, threw down my rucksack, and the guy behind me did, too.”

When the man behind him asked if they were moving yet, the veteran realized that the guy in front of him that threw down his rucksack was actually a bush that he had hallucinated, thinking it was a person.

“We all took off through the forest hoping to find the other guys who have been moving for five minutes,” the veteran said.

Another veteran spoke about the importance of teamwork, both with regard to serving one’s country and in life.

“You’re a team,” he said. “You have football teams and soccer teams. Teamwork is what makes America work and patriotism is what functions in this country.”

sfox@darientimes.com