Under a cloudless sky on sunsplashed Williams Field High School's Black Hawk Stadium, nearly 3,000 people basked in a day of honoring what military veterans in attendance fought for decades ago as well as current servicemen and servicewomen in Iraq and Afghanistan:

The many freedoms we enjoy today.

During the speeches Wednesday by Higley Unified School District officials, students, ROTC group members and special guest speakers, history lessons were learned and food for thought was digested for the future. Many of those who spoke during the three-hour event that concluded with a performance by country singer and former American Idol Josh Gracin - a former Marine, are from military families.

"We honor those who served and acknowledge sacrifices and pass on to the next generation the importance of serving and freedom," said Superintendent Denise Birdwell. "The veterans here today have protected our country, families, values and freedoms. Freedom is not free; it comes through sacrifice."

The event, which was being held for the fourth year, is believed to be one of the largest Veterans Day celebrations in the United States, and comes as President Obama prepares to withdraw troops from Iraq by the end of this year.

Emma Krznarich, a Williams Field senior, sang the national anthem and "America the Beautiful."

Skydivers from the Arizona Skyhawks parachuted onto the field to kick off the event, which included fireworks and military music performed by the high school's marching band. Military veterans from World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War were asked to stand so they could be recognized.

Three people in attendance were presented with folded American flags, including two Gold Star mothers whose sons gave the ultimate sacrifice during combat in the Middle East. Dustin Feldhaus, 20, an Army grenadier, was killed in Afghanistan on March 29 - 29 days before he was scheduled to come home. Army Col. Jeremiah Robinson, of Mesa, who had been in the service for a year, was killed in Iraq on Oct. 6, 2005.

Robinson was a military police officer with the 860th Battalion who had aspirations of following in the footsteps of his father, Chandler police Officer Floyd Robinson, and become a police officer.

His mother, Amy Robinson, said Wednesday's event was spectacular, but it has been hard to lose a son.

"He served with a lot of great people," she said.

Feldhaus' mother, Nicole Etchell, said that her son died "doing what he loved."

"We're proud to be here," she said.

James Miller, a 92-year-old veteran, also received a flag during the event. Miller piloted 33 missions in a B-25 Mitchell bomber over North Africa and Egypt during World War II with the Army Air Corps.

The spry veteran, the second of four generations in his family to serve in the military, joked that he received the flag for being "the best looking veteran there," but he knows he was one of the lucky ones. After he completed his missions and was preparing to go on to his next assignment, Miller's remaining fellow crew members continued to fly. But in their next mission, they were shot down over North Africa where all of them died in the crash.

Miller, whose father was an Army captain in World War I, still follows the philosophy of fighting for freedom and serving the country as he did nearly 70 years ago. His son served in the Army and his grandson is an Army lieutenant colonel.

"I believe in whatever you do, do it your very best," James Miller said. "Go full throttle. I'm very proud to be a military father."

Sgt. Robert Mitchell Jr., who was wounded during his second tour in Iraq but still able to administer first aid to his fellow soldiers, spoke about being a part of Operation Phantom Fury. Mitchell was awarded the Navy Cross and three Purple Hearts for his heroism.

"Americans serve because they are patriots," Mitchell said. "They serve to protect freedoms and to protect that heritage. What would you do for Freedom? I know what my Freedom is worth to me."

Zack Walz, a former Arizona Cardinals linebacker and former roommate of Pat Tillman, talked about Tillman, who left his NFL career in 2002 to join the Army and later was killed during a friendly fire incident in Afghanistan in 2004.

Similar to the veterans in attendance, Walz said of his friend, "He always did his job when no one else was looking."

During an emotional ceremony following his speech, Walz was presented with a replacement pair of Tillman's dog tags by two Army Rangers and Tony Malaj, Higley's executive director of support services and former Army captain who served eight years during Operation Desert Storm. Walz had lost the dog tags that Tillman had sent to him as a gift.

• Contact writer: (480) 898-6533 or msakal@evtrib.com


(0) comments

Welcome to the discussion.

Keep it Clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.
Don't Threaten. Threats of harming another person will not be tolerated.
Be Truthful. Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything.
Be Nice. No racism, sexism or any sort of -ism that is degrading to another person.
Be Proactive. Use the 'Report' link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.
Share with Us. We'd love to hear eyewitness accounts, the history behind an article.