Yesterday, the newly created Ukiah High School Military club took part in its first major contribution to the community. While many students enjoyed their free time this past Veterans day, Ukiah High Military Club members as well as this reporter worked hard, and spent the day supporting veterans by helping to staff local veterans meet up and celebration at the Ukiah Elks Lodge and Veterans Memorial facility, a quaint multipurpose Lodge on Hastings Road. Students helped set up the facility and prepare for the roughly 130 guests that attended. They then helped kitchen staff serve 110 three-course meals, including appetizers, lunch, and dessert.
However, club members experienced much more than basic event management and catering. Youth volunteers had the privilege to experience a local military tradition as well as witness multiple military customs and rituals in action.
Students first observed a general celebration of veterans and active servicemen.
As the event started, Ukiah High School Military Club members finalized their initial work and stood expectantly, waiting as the event officially began. Veterans and their families flooded in and partook in a celebration of all military branches, singing patriotic songs as well as hymns and anthems from each and every military branch.
A local Sergeant Major took the stage, giving thanks to each and every active service member and veteran, calling on many men to stand. Including a host of veterans from Vietnam, the Persian Gulf War, Operation Iraqi Freedom, Afghanistan veterans, and one World War II and Korean War Veteran. The attending veterans represented wars that took place from up to 80 years ago, to as recently as this August.
The service went from jovial to somber as local retired Mendocino County Sheriff Tom Allman had the honor of presenting a memorial for the thirteen United States soldiers that died in an attack on the Kabul airport on August 26 of this year. The thirteen soldiers’ names were read clearly and solemnly, and thirteen small American flags stood on the stage to represent those soldiers and their sacrifice. Many tears were shed throughout the room, for those men and women, but also for local “Gold Star Families” which have the somber designation of having lost their loved ones while serving in a time of conflict.
The Marine Corps set up a traditional table to commemorate prisoners of war and soldiers who are, and have been, missing in action. The table contained a number of symbols, an empty chair, and an upside-down glass, representing those who could not toast with us, and a plate with salt and a lemon slice representing the tears spilled by missing soldiers’ families and the bitterness of their plight. Also on the table was a yellow ribbon and a red rose, and a single military cover, representing the blood spilled by lone soldiers left behind, but also the restless hope by their families that they would one day return.
The ceremony was rich in symbolism and tradition, everything from the colors of the tablecloths to the arrangement of utensils served a purpose, and staff and Ukiah High School students, as well as guests, showed the utmost respect to the missing, and fallen.
An Active-duty Marine Corps Sergeant Major presented the display with palpable passion and respect “I call your attention to this table, which occupies a place of dignity and honor, it is set for one. Symbolizing the fact that members of our corps are missing from our ranks. They are a virtue as POWs and MIAs. We call them comrades. They are unable to be with their loved ones and families tonight. So we join together to pay our humble tribute to them and bear witness to their continued absence.”
Veterans are a resilient and vibrant group, and as such the ceremony quickly returned to its joyous mood, the Marine Corps celebrated its birthday with the timeless tradition of cutting the immaculate Marine birthday cake with an officer’s sword and passing the cake from the oldest in the building to the youngest Marine, after 94-year-old veteran Marine Pete, and 20-year-old Marine and Ukiah High School Alumni David Goodman had taken the first bites, the cake was served, and a speech read discussing the timeless strength and dedication of members of the Corps, in the past, present, and future.
From beginning to end, Ukiah High School Military Club worked to promote the name of the club as well as a local marine youth program called “The Devil Pups.” The program works to teach youth the value of leadership and discipline and inform them on military life, neither the Ukiah High School Military Club, nor the local Devil Pups program focuses directly on recruiting, rather they teach skills useful for military and civilian life.
Fred Keplender, a former Ukiah High alumni and editor for the Ukiah High Lite, Marine Corps veteran, and ex-Devil Pup leader, said “The Devil Pups program is run through the Marine Corp, but it’s not about recruiting, it’s about all life skills, it teaches leadership and it teaches discipline, is anti and anti-gang. Ultimately it provides something better.” When asked why he chose to join the Marines Keplender added “I wasn’t ready for college, I was just a kid who wanted to play football all day and I couldn’t have cared less about school, but my Dad was a Marine and my sister was a Navy Corpsman, and I wanted that Marine honor, courage, and commitment in my life, I wanted to be a part of something greater than myself.”
Throughout the event, multiple items were raffled off to support the Lodge and military services in the area. Everything from military knives to fine wine were raffled off. In an unexpected and wild turn of events, the prize item, an immaculate navy officer’s sword, was auctioned off by the ticket holder, and ended up selling for $400. The winner then donated the entire sum to the local Devil Pups program and Ukiah High School Military Club. This was in addition to a $500 donation already made from the Marine Corps directly to the Devil Pups program. Between these donations, Ukiah High youth, as well as other volunteers helped to bring $900 into youth programs which will be utilized in order to help sponsor events for poorer families and improve both programs as a whole.
However more important than any amount of money was the impact the volunteers made for the community. Multiple veterans and guests gave thanks, with one middle-aged volunteer saying “You guys have made a huge impact in these people’s lives, Elders have a harder time connecting nowadays, and this event helped bridge that gap.” He continued “most kids are sleeping in right now or scrolling through TikTok, while you are all sacrificing your day off to help local veterans.”
One elderly Army veteran addressed club president Halia Syfert and other club volunteers say, “Thank you all, from an old veteran.”
Another attendee took the stage, thanking the entire event staff, appreciatively saying “Many counties do not have any veterans day representation or celebration at all, this is truly a blessing.”
Ultimately, Veterans Day provided an opportunity for the not just Military Club, but the entire community to come together and prove their dedication and ability to make a deep and lasting impact, letting all veterans and their families know that they are not, and never will be forgotten.