Getting a group of elementary school students to learn to march military time is a daunting enough task. Getting them to do it in less than 20 minutes is even tougher.
But Army National Guard Maj. Mitch Nethery never got flustered when trying to teach group after group Nov. 3 at Cypress Cove Farm in Red Bay, Ala. Nethery, who was in charge of the marching station during Legion Post 120’s annual veterans program at the farm, relishes his role in the program.
“I love kids,” said Nethery, an Army chaplain and pastor at Red Bay First United Methodist Church. “I love working with children. This just fits me. If I can make them think for just minute, ‘We’ll never get this right’ and (then they) get it right, that’s awesome: just to see the light bulbs go off.”
In its third year, the veterans program is the brainchild of Post 120 Commander Frankie Miller and longtime Alabama State Rep. Johnny Mack Morrow, who owns the 300-acre Cypress Cove Farm.
“Most of these kids weren’t born when 9/11 happened,” said Miller, a Vietnam War veteran. “We need to tell these kids that freedom isn’t free. That somebody paid a price for our freedom. We take it for granted. We need to teach these kids that freedom … just didn’t happen. And if we don’t tell the younger people, they’re not going to know.”
Morrow agreed. “I feel there’s a need to teach patriotism to our children,” he said. “These children have never been exposed to soldiers, to the military life. How do they know how their freedom came about unless we tell them?”
During its first year, Smith said the post invited Red Bay fourth, fifth and sixth graders “and just kind of shot from the hip. I got two or three veterans to talk. We started out with four stations. It was a trial to see if it would work.”
It did. The post surveyed the teachers and students. All the numbers came back positive, Smith said, so Post 120 began opening up the camp to students at other schools and involving other Legion posts. This year, students from the Franklin County and Colbert County, Ala., school systems went through, as did students from Muscle Shoals Middle School in Alabama. And this year, students from Tishomingo County (Miss.) were supposed to attend, but their visit was rained out.
In three years, the camp has grown from 200 campers to more than 1,000. Miller said Post 120 began planning for this year’s camp last August. That includes meeting with Morrow and school principals and teachers, and going over plans and procedures for the camp.
As the camp has expanded, so has Legion involvement. Smith said Posts 31 (Tuscumbia) and 64 (Russellville) also have helped out the past two years. And Department of Alabama Adjutant Greg Akers was on site this year, running the flag-folding station.
In addition to learning how to march and fold the U.S. flag, campers hear from four different veterans about their military experiences and also visit the onsite Fred Rosemore and Gordon Morrow Memorial Museum. Each camper also gets a chance to ride on one of Morrow’s military vehicles he keeps at the farm.
Fran Nabers, a fourth-grade teacher at Red Bay High School, said her students look forward to the camp. “Most of the time I have a hard time with kids turning in permission forms,” she said. “The next day they bring (the veterans camp forms) back. They really enjoy it.”
Nabers said her students get “a sense of patriotism” and, after attending the camp, “understand that freedom isn’t free and the sacrifices that our soldiers go through.”
Fourth grader David Frei, 9, had never been to the camp before. He said he expected “cows and stuff because it was a farm.” But he enjoyed his time at the camp – especially riding on a military truck – and did develop an understanding of what veterans mean to the United States. “They served our country, and they (make it) a free country,” he said.
That’s what Smith wants to hear. “If it wasn’t for veterans, we wouldn’t have (freedom),” he said. “If there’s one kid out of the whole group that comes here and gets that, then we’ve been successful.”
That’s also how Morrow measures success.
“I can’t describe the feelings I have (seeing how the camp impacts its participants),” Morrow said. “It makes all the investment I have in my military vehicles and the investment in the property here all worthwhile.
“Patriotism is something that needs rekindling in America today. I am just so proud that we have Frankie Smith and the volunteers that are members of The American Legion … that are willing to come out and make this happen. The feelings I get are overwhelming.”
Morrow said he’d like to see other Legion posts throughout the country put on similar programs. “This can be duplicated … in any state,” he said. “All you need is a Frankie Smith – someone who’s willing to put some work into the project – and veterans willing to make it happen.”
Morrow said the dedication Smith has shown to the program “just says that he cares. He cares about the future of our country, and the future of our country is right here today: these children. We’ve had over a 1,000 children from two states. This is just awesome that we are able to teach these kids.”