Students Salute Veterans Over Breakfast

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Dwight Hanson, U.S. Marine Corps retired and MCS Boy Scouts, leads the posting of the colors during the special Veterans Day all-school chapel service at Mariners Christian School on Tuesday. — Photo by Sara Hall
Dwight Hanson, U.S. Marine Corps retired and MCS Boy Scouts, leads the posting of the colors during the special Veterans Day all-school chapel service at Mariners Christian School on Tuesday.
— Photo by Sara Hall ©

To thank the veterans who served the country, students at Mariners Christian School served breakfast to them this week as part of a special Veterans Day celebration.

More than 200 veterans, relatives and community members attended the event on Tuesday.

Following breakfast was a special all-school chapel. Students gave a short presentation on animals, from dogs to dolphins, working in the military. Other children performed several patriotic songs for the special guests.

“We’re celebrating everyone who was in the war and has protected our country,” said seventh grader Joey McGuiness, 13, of Newport Beach.

They protected freedom for all Americans, added eighth grader Matthew McMillen, 14, also of Newport Beach.

“It’s all to say thank you for their service,” he said. “They have given so much to us, it’s only fair we give back to them.”

Among the veterans in attendance was Mirko Duvnjak, a Military Reserve Technician for the National Guard who currently works as a Blackhawk maintenance test pilot and has nearly 40 years in the military under his belt.

“The politicians all say they support the troops, but they never actually do anything,” he said, “these kids are at least doing something. They’re walking the walk, not just talking the talk.”

(left to right) Dwight Hanson, U.S. Marine Corps retired and MCS Boy Scouts, Mirko Duvnjak, Military Reserve Technician for the National Guard, and Steven Padilla, Marine veteran who served in Operation Iraqi Freedom, pose for a photo together during the event.  — Photo by Sara Hall
(left to right) Dwight Hanson, U.S. Marine Corps retired and MCS Boy Scouts, Mirko Duvnjak, Military Reserve Technician for the National Guard, and Steven Padilla, Marine veteran who served in Operation Iraqi Freedom, pose for a photo together during the event.
— Photo by Sara Hall ©

It’s encouraging to see a school promote patriotism and honor the men and women who serve in the military, agreed Newport Beach resident Jim Evatt, who served 23 years in the Air Force and has a granddaughter at MCS.

“It’s a unique experience, to say the least, because you just don’t find other academic institutions in today’s world that put such an effort into honoring veterans as Mariners Christian School does,” Evatt said.

“These children are being taught to honor the people who make their life free,” his wife, Tammy Evatt, added.

The event featured special guests Marine Sgt. Chris Willingham and retired Marine dog, Lucca.

Lucca became a Marine in 2006 and was paired with Willingham. The duo worked together for five years before she was reassigned with a new handler. She had two tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan. Her primary job was to find explosives. Lucca had led about 400 patrols.

“She was very good at her job,” he said.

Her final assignment came on March 23, 2012. A buried explosive detonated and took off her left paw. Her leg had to be amputated. Amazingly, Willingham said, she was walking within 10 days.

She retired two months later and she and Willingham were reunited in July 2012.

Lucca now lives at home with Willingham and his family. She also serves as inspiration for others and helps raise awareness for military dogs.

She works with organizations, including Wounded Warriors. She was in the Rose Parade last year and a book was also written about her life.

“She keeps me busy,” said Willingham, who has an extensive military background himself. “I feel like Lucca’s manager sometimes.”

Continuing the dog-theme, the event also included donating $11,500 earned from a pancake breakfast fundraiser last week to Freedom Dogs, an organization aimed at “speeding the recovery and enhancing the lives of wounded military heroes through the use of specialty-trained service dogs.”

Freedom Dogs, founded in 2006, helps soldiers with PTSD and traumatic brain injuries.

Cathy Ehlers Metcalf meets Freedom Dog-in-training, Walter’s Honor. The puppy was named after her father, Walter Ehlers, who earned the Medal of Honor for his work on D-Day. Ehlers died February 20. He was 92.  — Photo by Sara Hall
Cathy Ehlers Metcalf meets Freedom Dog-in-training, Walter’s Honor. The puppy was named after her father, Walter Ehlers, who earned the Medal of Honor for his work on D-Day. Ehlers died February 20. He was 92.
— Photo by Sara Hall ©

“We have found that the dogs have helped them either navigate back into life or into active duty,” said Beth Russell of Freedom Dogs.

It’s also abut educating people about PTSD, she added.

“When people come back from war they have stress,” McGuiness said.

The dogs can relax, comfort and protect them, he explained. They can even turn the lights on and off, which can be helpful if the soldier wakes up with a nightmare in the middle of the night.

The dogs help the transition, he explained.

The school also donated $10,000 to Freedom Dogs to underwrite the training of one specific puppy in memory of this year’s Dr. Ben Friedman Leadership Award recipient,  Walter Ehlers. The puppy was named Walter’s Honor.

Ehlers was the last living Medal of Honor recipient from D-Day. Ehlers died February 20. He was 92.

“He lived a long and vibrant and positive life,” said his daughter, Cathy Ehlers Metcalf, who accepted the award on his behalf.

The Army Second Lieutenant went above and beyond the call of duty to save the lives of others on the historic day.

He spent the remainder of his life promoting the causes of soldiers.

“Both because of my dad’s work with veterans and because of his lifelong, absolute admiration for dogs… you couldn’t have picked a better method to honor my dad,” Ehlers Metcalf said.

Veteran Jesus Rivera of Irvine salutes as he sings the national anthem during the event. The Texan native served in the U.S. Marines from 1970 to 2000.  — Photo by Sara Hall
Veteran Jesus Rivera of Irvine salutes as he sings the national anthem during the event. The Texan native served in the U.S. Marines from 1970 to 2000.
— Photo by Sara Hall ©
Retired Marine dog, Lucca, gets some attention before the event as her handler, Marine Sgt. Chris Willingham, watches in the background. Lucca served several years in the Marines, including two tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan, before her leg had to be amputated because of an explosion and she retired.   — Photo by Sara Hall
Retired Marine dog, Lucca, gets some attention before the event as her handler, Marine Sgt. Chris Willingham, watches in the background. Lucca served several years in the Marines, including two tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan, before her leg had to be amputated because of an explosion and she retired.
— Photo by Sara Hall ©
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