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Dutchtown High School Students Show Gratitude to World War II Veterans During Inspirational Visit

HENRY COUNTY, GA – A little more than a week before Veterans Day, World War II veterans gifted Dutchtown High School with a rare and invaluable experience when they visited the campus and shared their recollections of D-Day and the invasion at the beaches at Normandy.

The seven veterans in attendance included Flight Officer Daniel Keel, one of the last surviving Tuskegee Airman, and Sergeant Andy Negra, the subject of a special feature, “The Andy Negra Story,” which airs during Delta Air Lines flights.

The visit seemed fated, given how events converged for it to come to fruition. Last school year, fundraising efforts were underway for DHS’s marching band, the Sound of Dutchtown, to represent Georgia and the United States in events commemorating the 79th anniversary of D-Day. After learning of the students’ efforts, Virginie Durr, enterprise sales manager at Delta Air Lines, felt inspired to help.

Durr is a Henry County resident and a native of Normandy. Still, her interest in the marching band’s quest went beyond her nationality, place of residence, and occupation. These factors only served to fuel Durr’s desire to support the students.

During the pandemic, Durr saw the documentary “The Girl Who Wore Freedom” about the liberation of the Normans in 1944. The film inspired Durr to forge important connections, eventually arranging charter flights for American veterans to return to Normandy.

She consequently extended an offer to the DHS marching band to join veterans on their June 2023 flight. The students presented a special performance for the honored guests before departing Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.

In Normandy, the band participated in various D-Day activities, including a parade, and made quite an impression. As a result, the veterans, Durr, Delta and Michelin executives, and Donnie Edwards, a retired NFL player and president of Best Defense Foundation, made plans to visit the school.

From students to staff, there was excitement throughout DHS in anticipation of the veterans’ arrival. The school’s Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) members guided the veterans into the gymnasium, where they were greeted by a standing ovation and rousing applause all the way to their places on the stage.

DHS students showed their appreciation with the ROTC’s Presentation of Colors and the band and choir playing tribute to the veterans in separate moving performances of the National Anthem, America the Beautiful, and military-themed pieces.

DHS student representatives read tributes to the veterans. Teacher of the Year Richard Postell and Mr. Dutchtown High School Chandler Grissom introduced each veteran by reading profiles of their military service.

The servicemen participated in a question-and-answer session, which gave students firsthand insight into World War II and the mindset of the military personnel at that time. Many, including the seven visiting DHS, were 17 to 19 years old when they were drafted or volunteered for service.

“I was still in high school when I was 18,” said Keel. “I felt quite sad about having to leave school and all the people there. But, as I began my training, I began to think about the fact that if I and many other Americans did not go to war to try to save the United States as well as other parts of the world, we would not be the democratic America that we have today. So, I felt, at that point, that it was probably my responsibility, as well as many others, to do what we could to stop Hitler from trying to take over the world.”

“I was a young 19-year-old not knowing what I was getting into,” added Negra. “And I’m proud that I was never scared going into combat. We did not know what we were facing, but when you go into something you don’t know anything about, you get to learn, and that’s what my experience gave me – learning what was going on and the purpose of the whole war. All I can say to all of you is, I’m proud of the fact that I served in World War II, and I wouldn’t say we saved France or Luxemburg; we saved the world.”

The program provided students with a tangible connection to history and offered greater insight into the role America played in liberating France. It underscored the immense gratitude the people of Normandy felt and shed light on the hardships the veterans endured. It also reminded those in attendance that the privileges they enjoy today resulted from the sacrifices of men and women like the veterans present.

“Our U.S. history classes are studying D-Day right now,” said Principal Nicole Shaw. “Today, the students got to meet some of the individuals they study. It is a huge honor, and we do not take it for granted.”

A common theme emerged in one-on-one conversations and presentations by Durr, Shaw, Edwards, and DHS ROTC member Malachi Caffie. All stated or implied the idea of the event being a full-circle moment.

“I joined the ROTC because it teaches discipline and mental strength, the basics of what you need to know when you enter the military, and basic skills you need in the real world,” said Caffie. “I also plan to enlist in the Air Force. These men had to sacrifice a lot and put their lives on the line so we could live. If I can serve the way they did, it would mean a lot more to them because they inspired the next generation, and we could carry it on until the cycle keeps repeating itself.”

At the close of the program, ROTC members once again guided the veterans in a mini procession as they left the gymnasium. The honored guests departed the room as they entered – to a standing ovation and spirited applause. However, the mood was different.

Reverence replaced the initial excitement. Adding to the somewhat penitent atmosphere, the band serenaded the veterans with a soulful rendition of the “2nd Movement of Lincolnshire Posy” as they distributed autographed “football cards” depicting their storied military careers.

Eager students jostled for a chance to speak with and take photos with the obliging gentlemen. While those in attendance felt great pride in having the opportunity to meet the veterans and express gratitude for their service, it was humbling to witness the joy the veterans exuded, knowing they are appreciated. For all who were able to join this momentous occasion, it undoubtedly left an indelible impression.

The veterans’ visit resulted directly from the partnership between Delta Air Lines, Michelin, and the Best Defense Foundation, now in its third year.

“This invaluable experience highlights the value of community and partnerships,” said Superintendent Mary Elizabeth Davis. “It also aligns with the district’s core values of advancing opportunities, access and outcomes, and efforts to ensure a high-quality, world-class education that extends beyond the classroom and provides students with a meaningful education that enriches their lives and broadens their perspectives.”

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About Henry County Schools

Henry County Schools (HCS) is the eighth-largest school district in Georgia, consisting of 52 schools, including two academies, located about 20 minutes south of Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. Over the past 20 years, our community has grown in population from 113,000 residents to over 244,000 residents. Since 1999, student enrollment has grown from 21,000 students to 43,000 students, and our number of employees has grown from 3,000 to 6,000.

HCS is “In Pursuit of Exceptional,” taking action to advance opportunities, access, and outcomes so that every student in our school district has Exceptional Support, Exceptional Access, and an Exceptional Future. In 2020, our Board of Education adopted our 2021-2026 Community-Inspired Strategic Plan and laid out a clear vision and mission for Henry County Schools. Our vision is to ensure a high-quality, world-class education for every student, and our mission is to empower all students with exceptional opportunities and access that lead to success in a global society.