Breakfast connects Alamo students with veterans

By: 
Ryan Lewis

Alamo Elementary School’s first Breakfast with Veterans was Friday, Nov. 10, and drew more than 100 guests before school started.
Alamo fourth-grade teacher Melissa Bierenga spearheaded the event after having started something similar when she worked in the Constantine school system.
“We’re just making sure all veterans are honored, especially the Vietnam veterans, because when they returned from that particular war, they were not honored the way they should have been,” Bierenga said. “We’re just such a small community and close-knit community, I felt like it was an event that was needed and would have a lot of people interested in coming.”
She said 110 veterans and students showed up for the breakfast.
“Any student who had a veteran relative could bring them,” she said. “And we have a couple students whose veteran relative had passed on, so they have some stand-in relatives.
“We had lots of food donations from various community organizations and businesses,” and then a lot from parents, the PTO and staff as well.
Russell Engbers paused during his breakfast to say he was drafted in 1944 right after he graduated from high school in the Grand Rapids area and turned 18.
He chose the Navy out of the prospect of being more likely to have a hot meal and warm bed every night. He went to engineering school in New York City in spring 1945. After he shipped out to the west coast a month later, he boarded the troop and cargo transport ship USS Baxter (APA 94) and tended the engine room as a machinist mate third class until the end of 1946.
“I really didn’t get into any combat missions at the time,” he said. “I was in the engine room. I got ‘round to different places, saw lots of things, got into Japan, Tokyo, and Sasebo down south, that island and big naval base of the Japanese.
“We made a bunch of trips back and forth, carrying prisoners of war.”
He said the event at the school was overwhelming.
“At the time you don’t think it so much as service as it is a duty, maybe, but it really is awesome when I see how much people think of people risking things for freedoms for the country.”
Another guest, Ryan Casper, spent three years in Korea (1953-1955) and ended his service as a corporal in the Army.
“We were in the signal corps,” Casper said. “That meant radio, telephone—any kind of communications, we would take care of. They would cut ‘em down or blow ‘em up and we’d go put ‘em back.”
He then joked, “Sometimes it got kind of hairy.”
He said it was wonderful the school was doing an event like the breakfast.
“I think more places should do this for veterans,” Casper said. “Not just for me, but there’s veterans out there who really need some help. And because little things like this would start big things more. There are so many guys sitting around, crippled, don’t have a lot of help, and it takes a long time to get through the VA. A long time.”
His granddaughter, Brandi Leonard, who has a daughter at Alamo, said the breakfast was amazing and was another example of how the district involved the students with their community and larger world.
“The school here is always doing something either with the vets or getting the kids involved in something to honor somebody,” Leonard said.
The longest serving veteran at the breakfast was Richard Wright, who served 20 years and retired in 1999 a lieutenant colonel with the Air Force.
He graduated from Michigan State University’s ROTC program and was primarily an engineer during his early years, working on primarily munitions and such.
“I did research and development and testing of those weapon systems,” Wright said. He was mostly stationed stateside at test ranges down in Florida. He now lives at Pine Lake and has grand-nieces at Alamo Elementary.
Bierenga said the event was a way to help understand the veterans’ service.
“We’ve noticed it’s hard for the children to really understand what their grandpas and grandmas have done,” she said. “So, in a setting like this, it’s really natural for them to be able to talk about it. We love the conversation we hear about how they served, where they served and how long they served.”
Contact Ryan Lewis at rmlewis@allegannews.com or (269) 673-5534.

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