JACKSON TWP — As he sat inside Raiders Field House on Friday, Dave Florentine was a mix of anxious and excited.
He, along with a few dozen other local veterans, were surrounded by the Seneca Valley football team as they waited to be addressed by head coach Ron Butschle. They were gathered for the annual Veteran Recognition Night put on by the district.
“My heart was pumping something terrible,” he said later with a laugh.
Butschle stepped to the front of the room and addressed the men and women who have served in the military, including Florentine, a Cranberry Township resident who served in the Marine Corps in the early 1940s.
Butschle became emotional as he thanked them for their service, and said he strives each day to instill the values and work ethic in his team that the veterans displayed through their military service.
He then invited each veteran to place an American flag decal on a player's helmet.
“So when we walk on the field tonight, and for the remainder of the year, we carry that with us,” said Butschle, the father of a Marine. “Hopefully we carry that honor, that sense of duty, that sense of respect, that sense of pride, that sense of loyalty that you have displayed in your commitment to our country.”
It was the 20th year of the event, which was created by former superintendent Gerald Malecki to honor veterans and connect them with students.
According to current Superintendent Tracy Vitale, the evening is a chance to pause and reflect on the battles that were waged to give Americans the freedoms they enjoy.
“We want players to remember what that flag represents,” she said.
Members of the school's junior ROTC program escorted veterans to and from the field house, and to the center of the track, where they were given a rousing, standing ovation just before kickoff.
Students took the chance to ask veterans where and when they had served, and to share stories of their service. Vitale said promoting these interactions between students and veterans is a key focus of the event, which serves as a “living history lesson.”
“It's more than just honoring vets,” she said. “It's not us teaching (students) history; it's showing them.”
Vitale took the opportunity to learn more, mingling with those gathered. The daughter of a Marine, she said she gravitates toward Marine veterans to hear their stories.
The event is equally beloved by the veterans, many of whom were at a loss for words over the ovation and attention.
John Hodil, an Army veteran who recently moved to Cranberry Township, said he was honored to take part.
“I'm so proud they asked me to come,” he said softly.
For others, like Navy veteran and former Seneca Valley School Board president Bob Hill, the event is a reminder that the “spirit of service” still is alive and well.
He said past generations often did not share their stories after returning from war, and events such as those held by Seneca Valley go a long way in sparking a dialogue between generations so those stories are not forgotten.
Hill said he has taken part in nearly every event during the past two decades, and it's something he continues to appreciate.
“It is really awesome to hear that round of applause when you're standing on that track,” he said. “I'd be lying if I said it didn't bring a tear to my eye 19 times in a row. ... As long as I'm able to walk or be dragged to this track, I'll be here.”