Valentine’s Day came a bit early for the children at Hamilton Avenue School this year. They made Valentines for veterans in time for a visit on Friday from US Congressman Jim Himes, representing Connecticut’s 4th District, and US Army Major Justin Bokmeyer, whose two daughters attend the school.
During the visit, Congressman Himes put the Valentine effort into context.
“It is our military that protects our democracy and our way of life. So what we’re doing is saying thank you to the many veterans,” Himes said, adding that the plan was to bring the Valentines to the West Haven VA Medical Center, where there are wounded veterans who fought in Iraq, Afghanistan, or other conflict zones.
Himes introduced Major Bokmeyer, who attended college at West Point in New York and spent 11 years on active duty in the United States Army where he was deployed to Iraq. Today he works in Major League Soccer, but also serves in the Army Reserves.
“My college experience was a little different. I was fortunate to play a sport there, and when you go to college there, you then join the Army afterward,” Bokmeyer explained. “I was the first class in after 9-11. So I knew when I joined college after high school that I would eventually be deploying.”
He talked about his experience in Iraq and how receiving mail was a way to feel connected to home.
“One of the biggest things we looked forward to was the days we got mail. Living on an Iraqi army base in tents in the middle of nowhere, the best thing was when trucks would pull in with all of our mail. We’d get packages just like the ones you’re making, and we’d receive posters and notes from kids from all across the US. I can’t tell you how excited we got and how special it was.”
Bokmeyer’s advice to the children was to work hard and find a way to serve their country.
“We all should serve. And we all serve in different ways,” he explained. “Whether you’re in the military, in Congress, or if you’re a teacher, that’s service to the country. Make sure you give back to your community, to your school. That service is critical for all of us being happy and successful.”
Congressman Himes said the military was a great option after high school.
“Tuck that in the back of your mind,” he said to the fifth graders. “It’s a wonderful way to get a great education and to serve your country.”
The fifth graders in Ms Preiss’s class had a lot of questions, starting with whether Major Bokmeyer knew anyone who had been injured. He said he did.
“That’s part of the sacrifice of being a veteran, knowing that can happen,” he said. “That’s why these Valentines are important. Because they will go to people who have been injured and need that encouragement.”
Asked whether he made friends in the military, Bokmeyer said lifelong bonds were one of the best parts of service.
Asked if he wore camouflage, he said, indeed he did every day.
“What did you eat,” one student asked.
Bokmeyer described group dining facilities somewhat similar to the cafeteria at Hamilton Avenue School.
But, he said, “We were in the middle of nowhere, we had ready meals like Lunchables – just not as good.”
After serving in Iraq, Bokmeyer said he was able to play lacrosse and attend business school through the Army.
Today, in addition to his job with Major League Soccer, his part time job was serving in Army Reserves in North Carolina.
He emphasized that through the military, it’s possible to follow a variety of pursuits. In fact, he said his sister was an attorney for the US Army in Germany.
Asked his favorite part about being part of the Army, Bokmeyer said it was meeting great people and forming lifelong friendships.
When the students asked where Iraq was, Congressman Himes was able to show them on the classroom’s rug with a map of the world.
Bokmeyer said Iraq was so far from home that when he would call his wife she in a different time zone.
“The Major who was in a very specialized unit in the military called Special Forces / Special Operations,” Himes explained, adding that men and women in the military were stationed around the world including in Japan, Syria and Northern Iraq, South Korea.
He also pointed out where the Chinese spy balloon recently drifted through Alaska and Canada, and where it was shot down off the coast of South Carolina.
“Even though right now we are not in a declared war, folks like the Major are all over the world doing things like driving submarines, keeping track of these balloons, and keeping people safe in Korea,” Himes said.
Also he showed where Poland and Ukraine were on the map, and said there were hundreds of people from the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne on the Polish border training Ukrainians who are fighting the Russians.