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Veterans Day: A Big Deal In Small Towns

Judy Fahys/KUER
Toni Turk, a Vietnam-era vet, talks about the men from San Juan County who have died while serving in the military. In the war on terror, 49 Utahns have died. Five of them were from San Juan County.

There’s a little round building in front of the visitors’ center in Blanding. It’s San Juan County’s memorial to those who’ve served or died in the military. Toni Turk is showing me around.

“Okay,” he says. “This young man, Jason Ray Workman, member of SEAL Team 6 — I remember the day he died.”

It was a morning in August 2011. Turk read how the Taliban shot down a Chinook helicopter in Afghanistan. Killed all 38 aboard.

Then he and his wife, Barbara, headed out on errands. They drove past the Workman's place. Three flags fly there — for the SEALs, the Army and the stars and stripes. All of them were at half staff.

“By the time I got three blocks down the road, I said, ‘Hey, I’ve got to go back,’ because I realized at that point that he was on that helicopter. And so I turned around and got back to their house. Went to the door, and I was right.”

It’s the week before Veterans Day. Just three months since San Juan County lost one of its own to war, and it seems like everyone’s been getting ready. To recognize those who have served. Veterans Day’s a big deal in small towns. A seriously big deal.

In a small town, it’s different — how people see soldiers and veterans. Really different. Veterans Day isn’t just time off from school or work. It’s about people you know.

“When we lose somebody it's, it means something to everyone, because everyone has a personal relationship with that person,” says Tim Young, the mayor of Monticello.

“That's probably something that's hard to understand if you're not from a small town,” he continues. “But, you know, when you lose someone in a small town, you remember feeding that kid at your house, or you remember playing paintball with him, or you remember him teaching your kid to wrestle. So it's -- there's a lot of a personal relationship that's involved.”

To see their reaction to us going through all this effort, you could tell how much they appreciated it. Last year, literally everyone was crying.” -- Brooklyn Grover

For 13 years, San Juan High School in Blanding has put on a special program for Veterans Day. Students make a big breakfast, stuffed French toast and ham. They invite veterans and families of fallen soldiers.

It’s a big deal.

“I just want the veterans to know that we appreciate them, and we're so thankful for what they've done and their sacrifice they've given,” says Deryl Shumway, a senior and student body president.

His great-grandfather served and a few cousins are in the military now. “Some of them gave it all,” he says, “and we just want their families to know that we love ‘em.”

Senior Brooklyn Grover, student body secretary, has helped organize the whole program. She’s also arranged to have the choir sing during a flag procession.

“It's a super cool experience. It's not just that it's really cool honor them, but they're honored,” she says. “To see their reaction to us going through all this effort, you could tell how much they appreciated it. Last year, literally everyone was crying.”

Credit Judy Fahys/KUER
Terri Winder raised five sons who served in the military. Her son, Nathan, was a Green Beret who was killed in Iraq in 2007. Another son is headed out soon for another tour of duty.

Terri Winder has five sons who’ve served in the military. One is about to redeploy. Her son, Nathan, was a Special Forces medic in Iraq. He was killed in 2007. The Winders were special guests at the high school last year.

“I can pull out my journal and see what I wrote for that day,” she says, reaching into a cabinet where she keeps dozens of pretty volumes.

“K, so what it says is: ‘We attended the Veteran's Day assembly at the high school this morning,” she says, reading from one. “As we're getting ready Journey asked if I was wearing waterproof mascara. I told her I didn't think I needed it. Wrong. Tom and I both cried. It was very touching. The whole program. The students were totally quiet, which Allie,’  — our daughter who's a high school counselor — ‘claimed is so unusual’.”

Winder tells me something interesting. She says kids are different here. This is how she put it: Kids here aren’t patriotic just because everybody knows everybody. She says it’s because of the place itself, what’s outside their front doors.

“These kids they just they just feel something more, perhaps,” she says. “And maybe it's because they can walk outside at night see all of the stars, their universe is bigger. It's also smaller in the fact that, when you're one and 70 something in a graduating class, you feel more of a sense of responsibility.”

Credit Judy Fahys/KUER
Second-graders at Blanding Elementary have been practicing their songs for weeks. They had an assembly honoring veterans on Wednesday.

Across town at Blanding Elementary 2nd graders are putting together their own assembly.

“It takes a lot of courage,” they sing, “to have to say goodbye, not knowing as you go to war if you will live or die.”

I’ll be honest: The song sounds kind of morbid for kids this young. It has soldiers leaving home, maybe getting killed.

But then I see how this isn’t just a concept to them. There’s a National Guard unit in town. Some have longed for a mom or dad on a long deployment. Maybe some lost an uncle or grandad.

Thank you, military! We honor you today,” they sing.”

So, when I ask the 2nd graders who wants to join the military, half their hands go up. One boy even gives me a goodbye hug around the knees.

Human connection is what Toni Turk was going for at the San Juan County memorial.

“It's focused at the level of the individual that made the sacrifice — it's not granite, .it's not chiseled words,” says Turk. “These are flesh and blood pictures of the men that paid that price. And I just felt compelled that they not be forgotten.”

The newest picture on the wall is Aaron Butler’s. He was a high school wrestling legend from Monticello. He’d wanted to be a soldier since first grade. He became a Green Beret and died in a raid in Afghanistan in August.

Mayor Tim Young is related. He rode a motorcycle in the military escort of Butler’s body.

“For me to watch it and be a part of it was a fantastic experience because you got to see the good in humanity and the gratitude that a community has for someone that has done so many good things for people,” says Young.

Butler could have been buried in Arlington, he adds. Instead, he chose to be here.

For me and for my kids to be able to actually witness that and to see what the price of liberty and freedom is and to make that personal, a personal experience for them -- hopefully, they will never forget." Tim Young

“At first I didn't understand: Why would you not want to be buried in Arlington where you know where the heroes are?

“But I was so grateful after after  the experience that we had here that he didn’t,” Young says. “To be able to stand there with my little kids at the graveside and listen to the 21-gun salute and to see all those soldiers standing there and paying their respects. You know,  I think, ‘Wow!

“For me and for my kids to be able to actually witness that and to see what what the price of liberty and freedom is and to make that personal, a personal experience for them. Hopefully, they will never forget. It's a priceless thing. And for all of us in Monticello to be able to witness that is something that like it's priceless.”

San Juan High School is celebrating it veterans today.

Four-year-old Lennon Palmer is kicking things off. She’s giving it her best, singing, “Oh, say can you see by the dawn’s early light…”

It reminded me of something I  heard a lot in San Juan County — how even the hard parts of Veterans Day are good.

It’s a chance to give back.

It connects us.

And that’s a big deal.


Judy Fahys has reported in Utah for two decades, covering politics, government and business before taking on environmental issues. She loves covering Utah, where petroleum-pipeline spills, the nation’s radioactive legacy and other types of pollution provide endless fodder for stories. Previously, she worked for the Salt Lake Tribune in Utah, and reported on the nation’s capital for States News Service and the Scripps League newspaper chain. She is a longtime member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and Investigative Reporters and Editors. She also spent an academic year as a research fellow in the Knight Science Journalism program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In her spare time, she enjoys being out in the environment, especially hiking, gardening and watercolor painting.
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