Veterans Day in Bear River City usually means a community gathering in the center of town, during which the town bell rings on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month in recognition of military servicemembers.
With a COVID-19 spike coinciding with this year’s holiday and putting a damper on those plans, Justin Bishop started thinking of creative ways to honor local veterans without having to bring a large group together.
Bishop, the school counselor at Century Elementary and a veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps himself, took it upon himself to find other means of getting the students involved.
In past years, “the whole school would go out there, we would have a guest speaker and ring the bell,” he said. “That’s been the tradition for a long time.”
While the town certainly plans to continue its tradition of gathering on Veterans Day as soon as it’s safe to do so, in the meantime, Bishop and others at the elementary school came up with a plan for this year that has taken on a life of its own.
Bishop started talking to students, parents and coworkers, and decided to create a display allowing people to supply pictures of the veterans and current servicemembers in their own lives.
He said Principal Jason Sparks was immediately on board with the idea, and now anyone who walks through the main entrance at Century is greeted by a colorful wall display dotted with photos of uniformed men and women accompanied by snippets of information – their names, where and when they served, and their relation to students and staff at the school.
Office assistant Brianna Baugh put up a banner-and-flag design on an open section of wall, designating a space for the pictures and brief stories that started coming in a week before the holiday.
A week later, she and Bishop were already thinking about what other spaces might be available to accommodate a flood of submissions from people in the community.
“We thought it would be smaller,” Baugh said. “We were just trying to do something fun for the kids.”
Bishop said that while it has been fun for the students, who can point to pictures of their parents, grandparents, or aunts and uncles and “brag about them to their friends,” the project has taken on a deeper meaning as well.
“I’ve had parents call and thank me because it has opened up a dialogue between them and their veterans,” he said. “It gave them an opportunity to say ‘hey, tell me a little about your service,’ that they never really had before.”
Bishop, who served as a motor transport driver in the Desert Storm and Desert Shield operations in Iraq in the early 1990s and represents the fifth generation of military veterans in his family, said he knows firsthand how difficult it can be for veterans to talk about their experiences.
“My grandfather, he didn’t talk about his wartime experiences until he was on his death bed,” he said.
Contributing to the school’s new shrine of remembrance and gratitude allows people “not to just honor our veterans and celebrate our veterans, it also allows the community, our students, staff, to come together for one common purpose, which has been really, really nice,” he said.
With such an outpouring of positive feedback and community support, Bishop and Baugh are now hoping the project will be a permanent display rather than something that goes up just once a year for a short time in November. They have permission from Sparks to use other spaces as needed to accommodate its growth.
“I can’t imagine taking it down,” said Baugh, who is married to a Marine. “I told them ‘if it has to come down, I’m not doing it.’”
She said Sparks “nailed it” when he called the display “a place of reverence in our school.”
While it was originally conceived as a display just for those with ties to students and staff at the elementary school, Bishop said it has grown to where he’s willing to take submissions from surrounding communities as well.
Anything that gets people talking with and about the veterans in their lives, and helping more people appreciate the sacrifices they have made, is something that deserves a permanent place in the community, he said.
“I didn’t imagine how powerful this wall could be,” he said. “More than anything, it has become about unifying people.”
Anyone who would like to have a veteran in their own family included in the display is encouraged to email pictures and information to Bishop at email@example.com