"One day you might be a veteran," Peabody Veterans Memorial High School Principal Ed Sapienza reminded students on Friday.
He urged those gathered for a student assembly in honor of Veterans Day to reflect seriously on the upcoming day of commemoration. And to bridge that connection for students, Steven Patten, a 1993 PVMHS grad, took the podium as the guest speaker to talk about his experiences in the U.S. Army Judge Advocate General Corps and overseas in Afghanistan.
Patten, a captain in the Army, recently returned from his second tour of duty in Afghanistan and contributed a flag flown there in honor of Christine Barbuto to her memorial at PVMHS.
He said the first day he reported for duty at Fort Bragg in Texas, he was sitting in traffic and saw bumper stickers with the slogan: All gave some, some gave all, but didn't understand the gravity of those words until months later.
Initially, he served as an attorney in a legal assistant's office and worked with families who had spouses in Afghanistan. He said he didn't really understand the plight of spouses or soldiers, separated from each other for months on end with infrequent emails and chats many times, until he was deployed on his own yearlong tour as a prosecutor in Afghanistan a few months later.
"I thought to myself, 'Great, no Thanksgiving, no Christmas, no birthdays.' I had just gotten engaged. 'How am I going to explain this?'" Patten recalled.
He said his now wife Lindsey took it in stride, as she does everything else in life, and spent that year planning their wedding.
At that post in Western Afghanistan near the Iranian border, Patten was met with daily 120-degree temperatures and a few eye-opening conditions out in the field.
Shortly after arriving at the outpost, Patten noticed some soldiers staring at his bag. He realized they were staring at his bottles of Gatorade. "We don't get that stuff out here, sir," they told him.
So he gave them the few bottles he had. "It was like gold to them," Patten said.
Next he learned that the showers and bathrooms were just installed earlier that week. He said the soldiers had been at the outpost for 10 months already.
"Before that they poured water bottles over their own heads and called that a shower," he said.
The morale and recreation center was made out of dried mud -- inside, wooden planks pieced together makeshift tables for a few computers with Internet access.
"Whenever they came off mission, the soldiers would stand in line for hours for a chance to email home and let their families know they were OK," Patten said.
Now, he finally understood what these soldiers and their families were going through. Patten said he caught up with another officer and learned his friend had missed his daughter's birth -- he showed Patten pictures of his little girl.
From there, Patten transferred to another unit in an active combat zone. That unit had lost 32 soldiers within 10 months and had dozens of amputees -- two more soldiers were lost that next week.
Patten said his commanding officer took him to a ramp ceremony, where the caskets of fallen soldiers were loaded on a plane and flown home.
"That was one of the most emotional experiences I've ever had," he said, explaining that soldiers lined the airfield, and as the caskets passed, they could hear taps being played.
"As I stood at attention watching the caskets being carried onto the plane, I remembered the bumper stickers I saw on my way to PT my first day at Fort Bragg -- All gave some, some gave all -- I finally understood," Patten said.
His second deployment in Afghanistan was this past March until September. This time, he said, his unit lost 35 soldiers in half the time, some of them women.
One day looking online for some inspiration, he found a clip from a Rocky movie. Patten quoted Rocky's speech to his son for the students on Friday: "You, me, nobody is gonna hit as hard as life. But it ain't about how hard you hit, it's about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward. How much you can take and keep moving forward."
"As the weeks went by, I started to see remarkable things. Despite all of the casualties and heartache our soldiers took, they took the hits and kept moving forward," Patten said. "We had soldiers saving lives, soldiers fighting side-by-side with the Afghan army, continuing to go on missions every day."
"And it all clicked for me," Patten said. "Our soldiers were fighting to get freedom for a people that have never known it. They were fighting so that we could all continue to be free in America, free from tyranny and atrocities that happen in places like Afghanistan."
"Veterans are doing these acts with all the same stresses and responsibilities that we have except they're doing it 6,000 miles away in a combat zone," he told students. "They are there while their loved ones are here. Against all odds, they are moving forward."
Major Ralph Ruocco, who heads up the Air Force Junior R.O.T.C. program at PVMHS, reminded students that while active duty veterans are more naturally visible because of their service overseas, there are many other veterans who are now teachers, police officers, firefighters, neighbors in the community.
"Veterans are the fabric from which our flag is woven," he said.