Elizabethton High School's Vietnam Veteran's Welcome Home and Memorial Service was held Thursday at the school. Tony Duncan/johnson City Press
ELIZABETHTON — In a ceremony overflowing with tears and emotion, a new generation of Elizabethton High School students said thanks and welcome home to the school’s Vietnam War veterans on Thursday.
The program was conceived, organized and executed by the students of Alex Campbell’s U.S. history class. They clearly demonstrated how strongly they felt about the neglect and abuse many Vietnam veterans experienced when they returned home after their service.
Class member Rachel McAuley gave the introduction and said she and the rest of the class “want to make a difference ... you were not treated as American heroes should be treated.” She apologized to the veterans for those experiences from the past, but said her classmates “appreciate all you have done.”
Another of the students, Tyler Livingston, gave the closing remarks and told the veterans how the event came about. He said Campbell showed the class a video in which Vietnam veterans talked about the mistreatment they received when they returned home.
The video made Livingston and the rest of the class extremely angry and they began to talk about what they could do as high school students to right the wrong. The result was Thursday’s ceremony.
The class members called the veterans heroes and thanked them many times for their service and sacrifice.
The class also honored the 10 Elizabethton High School graduates who were killed in action in Vietnam. Ten members of the class each selected one of the men and conducted research to learn about his life. They then wrote a eulogy for the man they selected and delivered the eulogy during Thursday’s ceremony.
Isaiah Oliver eulogized John Paul Avery, Stewart Clark eulogized James Michael Cornett, Dustin Fields eulogized Charles Edward Fulton, Hannah Hulshult eulogized John Paul Isaacs, Josiah Thomasson eulogized Dale Alonzo Johnson, Lance Peters eulogized James Henry Markland, Rebecca Jenkins eulogized Clifford Author Taylor, Zachary Cornelly eulogized Thomas Charles Treadway, Zachary Marley eulogized William Jack Williams and Kiri Hamm eulogized Roy Haskell Wilson.
These students also contacted family members and friends who were still in Elizabethton to learn more intimate information about the men.
“At first, I didn’t know anything about Avery, so I went to the new Elizabethton archivist (Joe Penza) and asked him for help,” Oliver said. “We found his obituary and it gave an address. I decided to go to that address to see if any of his family was there. It turns out they moved across the street, so I got to meet with them and talk to them.”
The students delivered the eulogies with passion and emotion. Many expressed how they identified with the man they were eulogizing. Most commented about how they were almost the same age. How these men had walked down the same corridors in school and taken the same classes. Although more than 40 years had passed, the students identified with the men who died so young.
Rebecca Jenkins was nearly overcome with emotion as she began her eulogy. She said she had not known Taylor, but she strongly identified with him and felt his loss.
The families of the 10 who died were guests at the ceremony and it was clear Avery’s family and the others were very pleased with the hard work and concern of the students.
Some of the veterans gave back to the school. The local chapter of the Rolling Thunder veterans’ organization presented the school and Campbell’s class with plaques and the American flags that had been used in the burials of veterans at Mountain Home who had no immediate family. The flag used for Theodore Isaacs was presented to the school and the flag used for Gary Prendergast, who was a member of Rolling Thunder, was presented to the class.
The guest speaker was Director of Schools Ed Alexander, who served 12 months in Vietnam as a rifleman.
He quoted from former faculty member Buddy Stuart who said, “We were khaki when khaki wasn’t cool.” Alexander told the veterans “Your sacrifices matter and your efforts were meaningful.”
He closed by saying “I am very thankful to be an American and I am proud to be a Vietnam veteran.”
Class members Alyssa Irmeger, Hannah Hulshult, Amanda Largent, Ashley Bass, Danielle Loving and Megan Dula-Elliott sang a tribute, “Mansions of the Lord.”
In his closing remarks, Livingston said “I will never forget this event and the impact it has had on me. I am honored to have the pleasure to stand before you. This is the greatest moment of my high school experience and one of the greatest moments of my life.”