LANSDALE — As over 100 veterans walked back across Lansdale Avenue into Mater Dei Catholic School from the nearby parish cemetery, they received a special welcome back, literally and figuratively.
Dozens of kindergarten and pre-K students waved, holding handmade American flags, cheering and shouting "Thank you" to those who served their country years, and in some cases decades, ago.
"It's a nice feeling. It's great to see that some schools are still teaching patriotism, teaching the meaning of the flag, and the meaning of the guys that serve," said Air Force veteran Nick Teti.
A Philadelphia native, Teti served as an Airman, First Class from 1963 to '67, with a stint in Vietnam in 1965-66, and said the greeting from students — including his grandson, kindergartner Killian Coffey — could not have been more different from how he was welcomed home half a century ago.
"I was getting spit at in the airport, called a 'baby killer' — and now they're all in Congress," Tate said.
"I'm tired of hearing all this 'America is responsible for everybody's problems.' It's the greatest country in the world," he said.
Mater Dei students honored those veterans with a ceremony full of patriotic songs, prayer, and candles lit to commemorate each branch of the military. As the Mater Dei students took turns singing patriotic songs, the veterans reflected on those they lost, and how lucky some were to have made it back.
"It's great, it's just a great experience. It makes it all worthwhile, having been in, and all of the BS we put up within the service," said Army Specialist-4 Norm Berger.
Berger joined the Army in 1962 and served until 1965, and recalled on Friday how he found himself half a world away from Vietnam, but in an area that was almost as dangerous.
"I was in Germany for the most part, for 17 months, and a couple of times I was right on the Iron Curtain border. We faced the Warsaw Pact forces, and my tank outfit would've been the first in the fight," Berger said.
"I was very lucky. We were just coming back on the boat from Germany, and we were all worried. The boat seemed to turn around in mid-ocean, and we thought we'd be extended. Then we found out (President Lyndon) Johnson massively expanded the draft, and then we knew we were home free," he said.
What was the first thing he did upon returning stateside? "A lot of us, including myself, kissed the ground at the Brooklyn Navy Yard when we got off the boat," Berger said.
On Friday morning, the veterans watched as Mater Dei students recited facts and figures about the American flag and various military conflicts. Pre-kindergartner Liam Jaber drew laughs from the veterans with a rendition of "You're a Grand Old Flag" — interrupted briefly by a cough, then an adorable and apologetic "I just coughed."
After the songs, Mater Dei students then presented medals, donated in honor of U.S. Army veteran Edward Brown, to each of the veterans. Among them was James Ward of Ambler, who served in the Army from 1964-66 after his father was drafted into the U.S. Navy and served in the South Pacific theater starting just before Ward was born in 1943.
"It was just a thing you did back then. Now, less than one-half of one percent of kids who graduate serve," Ward said.
"It's a different generation. They don't have any military obligation hanging over their heads like we did. And that's good. In war, nobody wins," he said.
Mater Dei President Diane McCaughan thanked the veterans for attending and for their service, the students for singing and taking part in the ceremony, and sixth-grade teachers Christina Kehan and Marianne Brownback for leading the ceremony.
"It is an honor and a privilege for us to celebrate with you today. Thank you so much for being here, and thank you very much for your service to our country," McCaughan said.
Navy Veteran and St. Maria Goretti Parish Deacon Steve Vondercrone recalled an unforgettable day in uniform when he was stationed in Annapolis in 1968, and his commanding officer passed away and was given a funeral with full military honors.
"I have to tell you, funerals are very sad, but there's nothing quite so sad as a military funeral," Vondercrone said.
"It was an extremely windy day — much worse than it is today — so the flags stood straight out when the wind was blowing," he said.
The winds weren't quite that bad Friday, but Mater Dei students held American flags in line as the veterans walked across to the adjacent St. Stanislaus Parish cemetery, laid a wreath on a memorial honoring fallen veterans, then saluted as eighth-grader Kerry McCullagh played "Taps" on her trumpet.
"It's a scene I will always remember, because of the chills it sent up and down my spine, and the fact that I was having an opportunity to serve my country," Vondercrone said.
"I still get that feeling today. I got it walking in here with my fellow veterans this morning — it's nice to see people give proper respect to our flag, because it's such an important reminder of what this country is, and what it stands for. It reminds me of the men and women who served in the Armed Forces and sacrificed to serve this great country of ours. And many of them made the supreme sacrifice, and never returned."