NEW MATAMORAS - To paint a picture of life as a prisoner of war in Nazi Germany, Pastor Eugene Parker of Marietta told children at New Matamoras Elementary School about the bread he was served there.
"First thing I did was cut off the outside of it because there was sawdust on it," he said. "Found out later that the bread was made out of dried leaves, sawdust and a few other things in between."
Parker was one of two prisoners of war who spoke to children Friday during the school's annual POW/MIA Recognition Day ceremony. In addition to hearing from them and other veterans, students expressed their gratitude through writing, song and spoken word.
From left, New Matamoras Mayor Dennis Agin, former prisoner of war Eugene Parker of Marietta, former POW Herman Zerger of Woodsfield, New Matamoras veterans Tim Peterson and Paul “Doc” Wolverton and New Matamoras Elementary teacher Johnny Schmidt salute the flag during the singing of the national anthem by fourth-through-sixth-graders Friday during the school’s 22nd annual POW/MIA Recognition Day ceremony. (Photo by Evan Bevins)
"Thanks for serving our country," wrote sixth-grader Jeremiah Roux in a letter addressed "Dear Veterans" hanging in the school's cafetorium. "You are so brave and have a lot of hope and courage."
Fellow sixth-grader Reese Amos was among students addressing their messages specifically to Army Pfc. Kyle Hockenberry, a 2010 Frontier High School graduate who lost both legs above the knee and his left arm above the elbow three months ago after an explosion in Afghanistan.
"Thank you for risking your life to protect me and keep me safe," Amos read during the assembly. "You are so awesome!"
Hockenberry and fellow Frontier graduate Army 1st Lt. Chris Rutherford, killed in action in Iraq in 2007, were also honored during the ceremony. Members of VFW Post 6387 in New Matamoras set up a missing man table to honor soldiers missing in action and explained the symbolism to students.
Herman Zerger of Woodsfield, Ohio, a prisoner of German forces for 95 days in World War II, has been coming to the event since the beginning. He's gotten offers to attend similar activities in Chillicothe and Columbus, but tells them he already has plans for the day.
"I feel more at home and I know a lot of these people, and they make me feel comfortable," he said.
Fourth-grader Lea Dunn said she found the presentations by Parker and Zerger interesting but felt bad for what they had to endure.
"I think that no human being should have to go through the stuff they went through," she said.
Principal Bill Wotring asked everyone in attendance to "do something" as a way to help and show thanks to Hockenberry.
"I don't know what the something is that I can do, and I don't know what the something is that you can do," Wotring told the students.
"I was thinking he would probably be impressed to receive a note from a former prisoner of war or a commander," he said, turning to the stage where the guests were gathered.
Hockenberry is recovering at Brook Army Medical Center in Texas. A saying from a tattoo of Hockenberry's, "For those I love, I will sacrifice," was displayed on posters around the school.
VFW Post 6387 Commander Don Lutes told the children about Rutherford and how he was successful in a variety of fields but chose and enjoyed military service.
"Lt. Rutherford did this for the love he has for all of us," Lutes said.
Sixth-grader Michael Smith said he is interested in joining the military and Rutherford's death is something he's thought about.
"It makes me think that if I do go in, (I might) sacrifice my life for my country," he said.
Also recognized at the ceremony was Paul "Doc" Wolverton, a veteran, retired elementary and high school teacher and bus driver and former city councilman. Teacher Johnny Schmidt announced the school was establishing an award in Wolverton's honor to recognize "exemplary citizenship and character." The winning student each year will have his or her name added to a plaque that will be on permanent display at the school.