A military uniform hanging in a closet; youth baseball games sponsored by the American Legion; the sight of faraway fighter jets streaking across a clear blue sky.
The cues that pushed Michael Edwards to serve his country came early and often. Growing up in rural Nebraska in the 1960s, Edwards found inspiration in the examples of his family and the larger community. His father had served in World War 2, as had countless others in his hometown. He grew up hearing their stories of sacrifices firsthand, and their example helped steer his decision to enlist at the U.S. Air Force Academy after graduating high school.
"I had decided absolutely that I wanted to become a fighter pilot," said Edwards, now a Major General in the Air National Guard and Colorado's Adjutant General. He spoke to a crowd of hundreds of students, teachers, staff members and fellow service members during the annual Veterans Day ceremony held at Overland High School on Nov. 7. He spoke about coming across his father's old uniform in a bedroom closet and playing baseball games made possible by the generosity of the local American Legion chapter. "Most of the men in my community were veterans."
But Edwards was careful to add that his decades of service were about a lot more than his initial reasons for enlisting. Surrounded by veterans of all backgrounds and ages on the Overland auditorium stage, Edwards pointed to even more fundamental aspects of his role in the military.
"I realized that I wanted to be a part of something bigger. The military is something much bigger than me ... Transitioning from being a civilian to a soldier is one of the biggest life-changing experiences I will go through. I can't say enough about the people in the Overland community who influenced me to become something great."
-- Overland High School Alum and U.S. Army Private Isaiah Doom
"Each of us who have worn the uniform has a different reason for why we decided to serve," Edwards said. "But it becomes why we continue to serve," he added, "You become a member of an amazing organization."
Specifically, military service makes an individual a part of something greater than themselves, Edwards said. He pointed to the preamble of the U.S. Constitution, stressing the "We" in "We the people of United States." For Edwards, military service is a way of becoming a part of that collective.
"It's a giving of yourself, in gratitude, for the life and freedoms you get to enjoy," he said.
That spirit of selflessness and sacrifice was on display as veterans from across the Overland community gathered at the school to kick off a weeklong celebration taking place in schools across the Cherry Creek School District. Veterans who'd served in World War 2, Korea, Vietnam and other conflicts joined current service members to interact directly with students, teachers, staff, administrators and other community members.
For the veterans and the active-duty military members, the event was a way to communicate with peers and community members. For the Overland students and the rest of the Cherry Creek School District representatives, it was a way to offer a heartfelt "Thank you."
"Today marks a great day in the Cherry Creek School District. I believe that Overland has one of the finest Veterans Day celebrations," said CCSD Superintendent Harry Bull. "This is our way to say, 'Thank you.' The sacrifices you make are so appreciated."
This message hit close to home for many in attendance, especially those service members who had firsthand ties to Overland and the larger community. Petty Officer of the Navy Timothy Curtis is an Aurora resident, and he spends time at Overland as a recruiter. The celebration gave Curtis the opportunity to interact with the community in an entirely different way.
"It's great to know that we have the community's support," Curtis said. "We're honoring those who came before me and those who are serving now. It's great to see that the district is supporting those who sacrificed it all."
The impact of that support was downright surreal for Isaiah Doom, a private in the U.S. Army who graduated from Overland last year. Returning to the school as an active member of the military offered a new perspective, as did the tributes he received from former teachers and administrators. The auditorium erupted in applause and cheers when Doom headed to the stage to accept a gift from the assembled dignitaries.
"I'm not used to it yet," Doom admitted. "I want them to look at me as the same person I was when I was in high school, but just as someone who's more grown."
Part of that maturation has come with the lessons he's learned during his short time in the service, the same type of lessons that have marked Edwards' decades as an airman.
"I realized that I wanted to be a part of something bigger. The military is something much bigger than me," he said. "Transitioning from being a civilian to a soldier is one of the biggest life-changing experiences I will go through. I can't say enough about the people in the Overland community who influenced me to become something great."