Army Maj. Dave Sonheim was getting adjusted to being a dad again.
Sonheim was back home after a deployment of 10 months, and readjusting to family life offered its own unique hurdles. The shift from soldier to father took some getting used to, as did the transition from a combat zone to safe space.
"It can take a toll on families," said Sonheim, decked in his military fatigues as he walked into the cafeteria at Sky Vista Middle School on Nov. 3. Sonheim's son, Sky Vista student R.J., waited patiently for his father to join him for a special honorary luncheon at the school, part of Sky Vista's larger tribute event to celebrate Veterans Week in the Cherry Creek School District. "It's a lot harder than you think."
That made the ceremony at the school all the more touching for Sonheim and his entire family. Like every other school across the district, Sky Vista staged a heartfelt and elaborate celebration to pay tribute to those who have served. On Nov. 3, students, teachers and staff from Sky Vista, Aspen Crossing and the new Middle School #11 campus slated to open in the fall took part in a neighborhood parade. They marched through the residential streets, bearing banners, placards and hand-written notes expressing gratitude and admiration before ending up at the Sky Vista campus for a formal ceremony.
It was a scene echoed at elementary, middle and high schools all over Cherry Creek for more than a week. For the seventh year in a row, a district of more than 54,000 students united in a common purpose: to honor service members of all ages and backgrounds. What started as a novel way to expand the impact of the Veterans Day holiday for CCSD students has become a hallowed tradition, one that's impacted thousands of individuals across the community.
Sonheim had attended previous Veterans Weeks celebrations in the district. The consistency of the district's message and the breadth of its efforts impressed Sonheim, who recognized a valuable message for students of all ages.
"It's nice to see that across the district, they take time to pause and recognize all of the service members who have spent immeasurable time away from families," Sonheim said. "Becoming a part of something bigger like the military ... The appreciation you have for the smaller things in life becomes very clear," he added, pointing to the experience, insights, leadership skills and rewards he's gleaned from his service. "You just can't find that anywhere else."
A similar message came up again and again during ceremonies held in CCSD cafeterias, classrooms and auditoriums over the span of a week. "It's an honor to be in the same room as these veterans," CCSD Deputy Superintendent Scott Siegfried said to a packed auditorium at Overland High School during the school's event held on Nov. 6. "These men and women were ordinary people until they heard a call of duty and answered it."
Throughout the week at dozens of ceremonies, current service members joined veterans who'd served in World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, Operation Desert Storm and countless other conflicts. They assumed places of honor during assemblies, speaking out about the value of their service or silently taking in the tribute.
Olin Kier, a U.S. Navy veteran who served in the South Pacific during World War II, was hard pressed to accept credit for his own service as he joined the diverse crowd gathered at Overland High School. Instead, he praised those who were currently engaged, those who were facing the tough decisions and selflessly accepting the challenges and sacrifices.
"I think I'm very fortunate to be invited to their party," Kier said. "They're active now, and they're the ones who need recognition. They're still getting used to being away from home and doing the things that they do."
Joseph Pacheco knows just how valuable that kind of recognition can be. Pacheco reported to Summit Elementary School on Nov. 7 to watch his granddaughter, third-grader Elsie Ruiz, join her peers in celebrating the community's veterans through song, poetry and artwork. A veteran of the U.S. Air Force, Pacheco recalled his fellow service members who were met with hostility when they returned from the Vietnam War in the 1970s.
It was a response that left deep scars on many of Pacheco's friends and comrades, a reaction that gave even more weight to Cherry Creek Schools' district-wide show of support.
"It's a good thing that the children are learning about what veterans have done for our country and to know that we also live a full life, have families," Pacheco said. "It's an honor, it's an honor to be part of this. I do it for vets my age, and it's such a good feeling to know that people accept you."
The value of the weeklong event was just as overwhelming for CCSD students. "We want our students to understand that the freedoms they enjoy every day were made possible by the men and women who have served, and continue to serve," said CCSD Superintendent Dr. Harry Bull, pointing to the immersive, immediate brand of education afforded by Veterans Week.
Students found different ways to take part. Some handed visiting veterans flowers and care packages, others invited their relatives who'd served to take part in their school's celebrations. Brianna Forbes, a senior in the district's I-Team program, spread her message of gratitude with the help of other students in the district.
On Nov. 8, a group of students from CCSD's Transition Program delivered letters and care packages to veterans at the Fitzsimmons Community Center located on the Anschutz Medical Campus in Aurora. Forbes had penned the message printed on the "Thank You" card delivered to dozens of veterans that day, a missive that summed up the spirit and intent of the district's Veterans Week celebration.
"Thanks you for all you have done for me and my family for us to be able to call this country our home," Forbes wrote. "(We) have such brave men and women representing us."