CHARLESTON -- The Charleston Middle School Veterans Day Program was a time of celebration Friday as students enthusiastically sang armed services songs and organizers individually thanked all the veterans in attendance.
The program also was a time of somber reflection as participants honored the sacrifices of veterans and their family members and they held a special presentation in memory of 1st Lt. Jared Southworth, an area soldier who was killed in action in 2009 in Afghanistan.
More than 30 veterans attended the program as invited guests of middle school students who are their family or friends. These student hosts accompanied their veterans as they filed to the front of the school gym, where program organizers shook their hands and presented them with medals.
Veteran Naya Perry of Charleston attended the program at the invitation of her daughter, Treveia Couch. Perry said she served for eight years in the Navy, including as a culinary specialist on the USS Enterprise aircraft carrier.
Perry said Friday’s event was her second Veterans Day program at the middle school. Perry said she appreciates that the program is well organized by the school and that it is personalized for the veterans.
“I like the fact that they honor each and every veteran individually, as opposed to as a whole,” Perry said.
Veteran Terry Parker of Charleston attended the program at the invitation of his daughter, LeeAnn. She said the program was fun and she enjoyed taking part in the event alongside her father.
Parker said he served for four years in the Air Force and his specialty was working as a ground equipment mechanic. Parker said, as a veteran, he enjoyed hearing students in the program read aloud essays that they wrote for a contest organized by the Charleston Veterans of Foreign Wars Auxiliary.
“I think they put a lot of heart into it,” Parker said, adding that he could tell the students considered what it takes to be in the military.
The Veterans Day Program concluded with the presentation in memory of 1st Lt. Southworth, whose mother, Kim, is a teacher at Charleston Middle School. Southworth family friend Esther Lutz addressed the Veterans Day Program’s audience on their behalf.
Southworth grew up in Oakland and graduated from Oakland High School in 2000. Lutz told the students that Southworth gained a reputation for helping underdogs and fighting bullies when he was a youth.
“That was the kind of guy he was. That was Jared,” Lutz said.
Southworth then continued his education at Lake Land College, earning an associate’s in criminal justice. He earned his bachelor’s in general studies at Eastern Illinois University in 2006. He married during this timeframe and started a family that grew to include four children.
The Oakland native enlisted in the Illinois National Guard in 2004 and was commissioned through Eastern’s ROTC program in 2006. He deployed to Afghanistan in December 2008 and was killed there on Feb. 8, 2009, at age 26 by an improvised explosive device.
Some of Southworth’s family members attended the Veterans Day Program. His sister, Nikki Guerrero, thanked those in attendance.
“I know my brother’s memory and life and sacrifice will never be forgotten,” Guerrero said.