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Virginia Parks School honors veterans
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Marine veteran Antonio Ruiz was escorted into a Veterans Day celebration at Virginia Parks Elementary School with grandchildren Jayson Orque, Lillyana Perez and Mia Miller – all students attending there. - photo by Jeff Benziger

Local veterans felt honored – and some emotional – during a patriotic themed assembly hosted Friday at Virginia Parks Elementary School in celebration of Veterans Day.

Children at the school honored dads, grandfathers, great-grandfathers and uncles of classmates during a special schoolwide assembly organized by teacher Janet Stanhope in the gym.

“I’m proud of our country and the first time I came here it brought tears to my eyes, the way the kids showed us all this respect,” said Army veteran Jim Casey, who has attended numerous other events at the school over the years. This year the Vietnam War veteran from 1968 and 1969 was invited by granddaughter Mary Casey, 10, a fifth-grader at the school.

“It’s unbelievable. That’s why I come – it really makes you feel you’re proud to be an American.”
Jim Casey, Vietnam War veteran

“It’s unbelievable. That’s why I come – it really makes you feel you’re proud to be an American, not necessarily a service person but these little kids singing those songs and stuff.”

Casey, who owns and operates Casey’s Moving Systems in Ceres, recalled his role in Vietnam.

“I was one of those support guys, documentation. We risked some small fire and we were mortared once but for the most part it was pretty safe for me. I was a documentation clerk. Ammunition came from Port Chicago over to here to Saigon, and was unloaded onto barges and came to us and we unloaded off barges and put it on trucks. We had to keep track of it.”

He lamented the loss of 58,220 American lives, adding, “For what? So that we can buy clothes from them?”

Daniel Franco of Ceres attended after being invited by his grandson, Khoury Franco. Dan served in the Army from 1974 to 1976.

“I felt pretty good,” Franco said of being honored at Friday’s event. “It’s nice. It’s the second time I’ve been invited. I really liked it.”

Twins Tony and Johnny Virigilo invited their grandfather, Robert Harrington, 88, of Manteca. He joined the Navy in 1947 when he was 17 and served for 20 years, working in communications and the post office. Part of his sacrifice was spending up to a full year away from his wife and children.

“There were a lot of nights you didn’t see your family,” said Harrington. “A couple of times I left the kids for a year. I kissed my wife goodbye and said, ‘I’ll see you in a year.’”

Alberto Aranda, who served with the Marines for four years, was invited by son Matthew. He served from 2004 to 2008 and was stationed at Twentynine Palms. Aranda commutes from Ceres to his job as an academic counselor with Diablo Valley College.

“There’s a lot of political rhetoric but it’s good that they acknowledge veterans,” said Aranda, “especially since we’re still in war and we still have a lot of troops overseas.”

The veterans’ ceremony impressed Ryan Schwartz, who came to become assistant principal at Virginia Parks this year.

“It was so amazing and so heartfelt,” said Schwartz. “Being a veteran myself I was very thrilled with just watching the whole school honor the veterans. I was taking that in.”

Schwartz stood up with the veterans along with the military son of Principal Jennifer Backman.

“What these kids and this school do shows not only the community but the veterans how thankful they are,” said Dan Aguilar, a Vietnam era veteran.

Friday’s event stood in great contrast to the time after he came home from the unpopular war in Southeast Asia.

“My real war started when I got back,” said Aguilar, who served in the 1st Air Cavalry during the Vietnam War in 1967 and 1968. He was invited to attend the event by his granddaughter Madison Plata, who attends the school. “I didn’t know why they sent us to Vietnam but I did not know why they treated us the way they did after we got back. A lot of them were like college students, a lot of them were anti-war demonstrators.”

Aguilar, who served as a combat engineer specializing in demolition efforts to cut landing zones and mine sweep the roads, quietly remembered his friends who served with him, some of who died in the war.

“I just want to remember my friends. I think my fondest memories are the times we were together. When I left, I left a family of friends. I prayed they would all come home.”

After the presentation of colors by the American Legion Color Guard, student Hayden White sang the National Anthem and students sang numerous enthusiastic renditions of patriotic songs, including “This Land is Your Land,” “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” “You’re a Grand Old Flag,” and “God Bless America.” A slide show was shown depicting relatives of staff members serving in the military who could not be at the event.

Members of the American Legion Honor Guard fired a 21-gun salute just outside the gym like they fire at the funerals of fallen veterans. The three rapid volleys of gunfire excited the students who could hear the reports through the open door. 

Other veterans who attended included Dave Pratt who was in the Navy from 1966 to 1970 in Vietnam; Walt Butler, who served aboard the USS Hornet and who is commander of the Ceres American Legion post.

A cross-section of the local military veterans who were honored Friday morning at Virginia Parks Elementary School. - photo by Jeff Benziger
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Alberto Aranda, who served with the Marines for four years, was invited by son Matthew Aranda. - photo by Jeff Benziger
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Student Hayden White sang the National Anthem as a serviceman looks on. - photo by Jeff Benziger
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Veteran Daniel Franco with grandson Khoury Franco. - photo by Jeff Benziger