Jamie Hutchinson was emotional and a little uncomfortable at the podium, looking out over the Great Bend High School gym packed with students for the school’s annual Veterans Day ceremony Friday morning.
Hutchinson is the manager and a nurse at the Heartland Cancer Center in Great Bend who has also treated combat-wounded soldiers on Iraqi battlefields. But, being asked to speak about her experiences was just a little overwhelming, she said.
“I don’t feel like a veteran,” said the GBHS graduate and retired Air National Guard lieutenant colonial. “I’m just honored to have gone and served my country.”
She was the featured speaker during the event that opened with the GBHS band playing “Semper Fi” while students and adults entered the gym. The Pledge of Allegiance was led by GBHS STUCO President Lindsay Newman, and the “Star Spangled Banner” and “God Bless the USA” were performed by the GBHS Madrigals
“I joined because I wanted help paying for college,” she said. That it did, but it turned into so much more.
“My life would be forever changed,” she said, flanked by the American Legion Riders color guard shouldering American flags.
She started as a medic and earned her nursing degree while serving. While a great opportunity that took her to Honduras and Turkey, it also led her to Iraqi.
“I was just a nurse,” she said. Sure, she carried a gun and wore body armor, but she thought she was insulated from the war raging around her.
But, the war hit close to home. She faced the realties of combat as injured solders came through her field hospital.
“I saw things I didn’t want to see.”
She also served in the Patriot Detail that escorted the caskets of dead soldiers to the plane for the trip home. “I thought ‘that could be me.’”
Hutchinson said she would stand in the streets of Iraq and think about her loved ones back home. “I am here and they are safe there” because of what she was doing.
She said she has no regrets. She made life-long friends, had unique opportunities, received an education and met her husband, Shawn.
“It changed me,” she said. “Hopefully it made me a better person.”
After Hutchinson spoke, the veterans stood as the band played the theme song of their respective branches of service in “Salute to America’s Finest.” Recognized were vets from the Army, Navy, Coast Guard, Marines and Air Force.
As they rose, they were met with applause from the crowd filling the gymnasium.
Then came a recognition of students and faculty who currently have someone in the military. In addition to adults, and a sign of the times, many students also stood.
High school teacher Dan Heath next read John McCrae’s 1915 World War I poem “In Flanders Fields.”
Heath also gave the opening remarks and a history of Veterans Day, originally known as Armistice Day.
“I am honored to wave the flag,” Heath said. “On Veterans Day we gather to honor, salute and pay our respect to those who have served this country.”
Today, there are 23 million veterans in the United States and hundreds of thousands of men and women currently service in the military. “They all have faced the greatest test of American citizenship,” he said.
Many of those who serve come home scared and wounded for life. Some pay the ultimate price.
“There was a job to be done and they were called to do it,” Heath said. Now, “our liberties are ours to control.”
The observance ended as a lone GBHS trumpeter played “Taps.” The notes echoed in the otherwise silent gym.