The students presented money and hand-knitted scarves and gloves to Cory Bazinet and Sam Bennett from Soldier On on Wednesday morning during an assembly.
DALTON, Mass. — Freedom is not free.
At Craneville Elementary School, the freedom to wear hats in class cost the students $1.
Those dollars added up and were donated on Wednesday to the men and women who risked their lives to defend the freedom all Americans enjoy every day.
Through the program, the students pooled together more than $250 to donate to Soldier On. Another group of students hand-knitted scarves and gloves to donate as well.
On Wednesday, the entire school gathered in the gymnasium to present the gifts to the organization. Cory Bazinet and Sam Bennett from Soldier On accepted the gifts, but only after teaching the students a bit about what they do and telling stories of what they did when they served.
"I met a lot of people in the Army from Texas, Alabama, all over the United States. We were all the same. We raised our hand and said we would serve our country and to die for our country," Bennett said.
Bennett served in the Army as a tank commander. He told the students about his time in Germany, at age 18 serving on the former Czechoslovakian border, which he said reminded him of Massachusetts, and how much he enjoyed riding in the tank.
Bazinet served in the infantry and took tours in Afghanistan and Iraq. He was in the service for 13 years before returning to the Berkshires.
"Everybody has heard about Sept. 11, 2001. I went in just before that and then 9/11 happened. The United States went to war in Afghanistan and Iraq, both places I've been to in 2003 and 2004," Bazinet said.
Bazinet showed a slideshow of photos he took overseas. He received an "aww" from the student when he showed pictures of a dog that had taken up bunks with the servicemembers in Afghanistan. He showed the students photos and talked about the children and farmers who lived there and the houses they lived in. He explained how the people of Afghanistan were good farmers and could "find water inside of a rock."
A little while after Bazinet returned home, a job opened at Soldier On. Now he manages the organization's entire fleet of vehicles -- giving back to veterans just like himself.
Returning from war wasn't easy for Bennett.
"I ended up homeless. I ended up in jail, incarcerated. I ended up with an addiction problem. I ended up here in the state of Massachusetts. I met up with Jack Downing, who I call my brother, at Soldier On, he is the senior of the organization. He took a chance on me. I went to school to become a counselor and that is what I do now," Bennett told the students.
Bennett said there are veterans from all over who made the same decision to serve their country but many return home to struggles. That's where Soldier On helps. Bennett helps veterans get the help they need to rebuild their lives.
"It wasn't the people who changed, it was me. I started making bad choices and ended up in bad places," Bennett told the students, telling them to follow "positive leaders."
Retired Air Force Lt. Col. Bruce Shepley of Adams now works as a nurse at Craneville. He told the students that there are veterans of all types, but they all had a "common denominator" of serving the country.
"When I think of a veteran, this is the stereotypical picture I see -- someone who can be 90 years old and wears their uniform with pride. I used to think of veterans as only old people until I became old people," Shepley said.
He urged the students to read the monuments and walk through the cemetery to see the graves of veterans. He said many people who live and work right in Dalton spent time defending the country. And all veterans share a unique bond with each other.
"We are a brotherhood. We are a family. We cry together. We laugh together. We suffer together. We fought in the wars together. And we comfort each other when we come back home. Just because you leave the war behind, doesn't mean the war leaves you behind," Shepley told the students.
He taught the students the history of Veterans Day and showed photos of the planes he flew in, transporting patients as a nurse. He showed photos of his family members who served and explained the planes and history.
While the students got to wear hats for one day in class, it was much more than that. They received a lesson on gratitude and what it is like to serve in the armed forces.
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