Every year, around the same time at the end of September, Mission Viejo High holds a ceremony and football game to honor those who serve and have served in the armed forces. From sergeants to Pearl Harbor survivors, we have it all.
“I think, giving back, no matter what it is you do, whether it’s volunteering…or, working at school…it’s about giving back and recognizing people that should be recognized.” Says Kathryn Mattison, the founder of Mission for the Armed Forces. “I love the event. I love talking to these veterans…they’re just incredible.”
For those who are unfamiliar with Mission for the Armed Forces, invitations are sent out each year to veterans to come enjoy dinner and football game played in their honor. Each player on the varsity football team sports a jersey, not with his name on the back, but with a veteran’s.
The whole idea is that each player represents a man or woman who served or is currently serving, therefore making the experience much more meaningful and giving the players on the Mission Viejo High football team a reason to play and fight harder than ever before to win.
“My son is playing today,” Paz Munoz, an army nurse, said with pride. When asked what the most meaningful thing about being in the army was, she responded by saying, “A lot of the veterans can agree…we cannot explain it.”
“There’s a lot of behind the scene things that go on: sometimes my mom could be gone for weeks…I think it’s just special that they’re doing this.” Steven Munoz, Paz Munoz’s son, says. “I support her. I’m proud of her.”
Steven Munoz added, “She grew up in Mexico, and when she became a citizen, she became a nurse, and then eventually, she wanted to become a military member. It’s just these humble beginnings that, just like that, I can look up to and say, ‘Well, my mom did this…I can’t quit now.’”
The event, now a tradition at Mission Viejo High, has spoken to and changed many of the veterans’ lives. Mattison explains, “We’ve had so many Vietnam Vets, from forty or forty-five years ago, saying, ‘I’ve never been honored…This is the first time anybody has ever said to me, ‘thank you.’ ”
Among these veterans sits the 2015 honoree: Howard Bender, a Pearl Harbor survivor. “It makes me feel good to see all these people recognizing that they have freedom because of one thing: what we do.”
After speaking to Bender about his experiences and Pearl Harbor, he said, “I had a year with the Pacific Fleet, as a young man of eighteen…I had no problem because I had good training. I did my job when the time came to do it, and I’m sorry we lost the Pacific Fleet, but we were ambushed.”
“We fought with what we had, the best equipment, but we didn’t have what the Japanese had. So, Pearl Harbor was an incident that, as it did happen, was bound to come out the way it did because we were totally unprepared and it was a complete surprise.”
Despite the misfortunes our country has faced throughout history, the veterans were, without a doubt, positive and excited about the event Mission Viejo High was holding in their honor. Alas, the question arises of what this experience meant to the people who risk their lives everyday for our freedom.
“It’s a celebration of those who have served.” Nico Marcolongo, a veteran who served fourteen years in the Marine Corps, said. “To see our high school students coming back and saying thank you, even though a lot of them weren’t around when these people served…It means a lot.”
“I look at it as just honoring the past and the future,” Darren Smith, a current marine, states. “It’s showing appreciation for military service.”
Eric Mastel, a current marine, brought a little bit of Diablo spirit to the dinner. “I went to this high school, and my best friend…his little brother nominated me for this.” He said with a smile. “It’s an honor to be here, and there are a lot of people here who deserve it a lot more than I do. I think it’s cool that there are people being honored that do deserve it.”
Throughout the night, men and women who deserve nothing short of being appreciated got exactly that, but even a few volunteers were brought to tears by such a wonderful situation. Larry Ross, who traveled from Maine to visit Mission Viejo, is among those people.
“The field of flags is something I thought of doing in my community to commemorate the people lost on 9/11.” Larry began, explaining how he shows his gratitude and never ending love. “I like doing it because it’s a way for me to slow people down. I like to say to them, ‘If you really take your time and you think about every flag, then you think about a person.’ And I think that becomes important for people to try to gain some understanding by really trying to understand it in personal terms, what that would have been like.”
Ross was wearing a navy blue collared shirt with the date “June 13th, 2003” written on the pocket. He pointed to that date when asked when the first time he set up the field of flags was, proudly announcing “June 13th, 2003 was the first time I did it in my backyard…After 9/11, I was teaching school at the time, I decided I would try to do this Field of Flags.”
He isn’t only known for his Field of Flags effort, though. “I had the big flag, on the first anniversary of 9/11: Went to a mountain on the coast of Maine, Cadillac Mountain, which is the first place the sun shines in the United States.”
“And we had it up on that mountain: came down off the mountain, went to the hometown of Mrs. Ellen Saracini in Pennsylvania, whose husband was killed on 9/11, he was the pilot of one of the planes, and then went from there back out to San Diego, which is where the flag originally came from, to this guy Nico Marcolongo.”
“He had lost a friend on 9/11. So I called him, and I said, ‘Can I send you this flag? I’d like you to go to the beach, and I’ll send a school there, and I’ll do something here in Maine at sunrise, you do something in San Diego at sunset, and we’ll have crossed the country in one day.’”
People across the nation appreciate Ross’s efforts, and he continues to make sure no one ever forgets what occurred on that fateful Tuesday in September.
So many volunteers and family members were so dedicated to making this night one of the best and most memorable for the veterans, and I hope they never forget that we honor and appreciate them more than they could ever imagine.