St. Damian students pay homage to U.S. veterans

By Michelle Martin | Staff writer
Wednesday, November 17, 2021

St. Damian students pay homage to U.S. veterans

Students from St. Damian School in Oak Forest observe Veterans Day with a schoolwide parade and prayer service on Nov. 11, 2021. Rain prohibited them from processing to a nearby veterans memorial for the service so they moved the program into the church. Students began the day making posters in their classrooms. (Julie Jaidinger/Chicago Catholic)
Baylana Beltran of St. Damian School decorates a thank you message for veterans. (Julie Jaidinger/Chicago Catholic)
Joseph Gulli colors a patriotic star in preparation for the school-wide parade and prayer service. (Julie Jaidinger/Chicago Catholic)
Rylee Skafar holds a flag and parades down the hall. (Julie Jaidinger/Chicago Catholic)
Students process through the hallways. (Julie Jaidinger/Chicago Catholic)
Evan Jones gives thanks to veterans. (Julie Jaidinger/Chicago Catholic)
The students display their signs. (Julie Jaidinger/Chicago Catholic)
Veteran and St. Damian history teacher, Ryan Vandewiel, speaks about his experience in the service. (Julie Jaidinger/Chicago Catholic)

Students at St. Damian School in Oak Forest paid homage to veterans of the U.S. Armed Forces Nov. 11 despite rainy weather that forced school staff to move the ceremony to the parish church instead of outdoors at the Oak Forest Veterans Memorial.

The students started their day in classrooms, making posters to honor veterans, and then lined up in the main hallway for a procession into the church.

In addition to praying for veterans’ safety and well-being, the students heard from junior high social studies teacher Ryan Vandewiel, who served in the Illinois National Guard from 2011 to 2018 and achieved the rank of corporal.

Vandewiel told the students that he signed up as soon as possible after his 17th birthday in 2011, with his parents’ permission.

“I never once thought, ‘What am I getting myself into?’ although perhaps I should have,” Vandewiel said.

He found that he had the dedication and perseverance to succeed at basic training, he said, and he ended up enjoying his time serving in a field artillery unit.

People join the military for different reasons, Vandewiel said, from a desire for adventure or to serve their country or to get financial help for college. But once they are serving, those reasons don’t matter.

“In order to succeed in the military, you have to sacrifice your ego and your will,” he said. “Serving in the military is about shared experience, both good and bad. When you are in the military, you are rarely alone.”

Veterans Day reminds veterans that they are still not alone, he said. It was created to in the wake of World War I to honor not those who died in war — that’s the purpose of Memorial Day — but those who served and came home.

More than 2,000 soldiers were killed in the 11 hours between midnight and 11 a.m. Nov. 11, 1918, when the armistice that ended that war went into effect. They deserve to be honored, Vandewiel said.

“But what about the guys who are told to pack up and go home when seconds earlier they were fighting for their lives?” he said.

Now, Vandewiel said, when he meets another veteran, he finds that they have bonds they don’t share with civilians.

Casey Gallagher, whose youngest daughter is a kindergartner at St. Damian, agreed. Gallagher served in the U.S. Marine Corps from 1995 to 2002, before leaving military service to become a police officer.

“You meet someone who’s a veteran and we can talk for hours,” he said.

He has always tried to come the Veterans Day ceremonies hosted by the schools his five children have attended. It’s important for them to understand the sacrifices veterans have made, he said.

Vandewiel said he talks about that in history classes with his students, and St. Damian has some kind of program honoring veterans every time the holiday falls on a school day.

Last year, when the whole school could not assemble because of the pandemic, he facilitated an online panel discussion with soldiers he served with that students could watch from their classrooms.


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  • veterans

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