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Students build connection between Hudson, Arlington National Cemetery

Students from Hudson Middle School and St. Patrick's Middle School lay a wreath on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery in a ceremony lead by the honor guard there. Photo courtesy of Jeremiah and Jennifer Maxwell.1 / 2
Hudson Middle School and St. Patrick's Middle School students who participated in a wreath laying ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery are pictured here. From left are Maddie Leininger, Kaleb Maxwell, Anna Jensen (all three from HMS) and Andrea Beyer of St. Patrick's.2 / 2

Each year, Hudson and St. Patrick's middle schools bring a group to Washington D.C. And each year two to four of those students are given what teacher Bryon Grossenbacher calls "a once in a lifetime opportunity."

"It's kind of a big deal," Grossenbacher said. "I think it's something the community should be made more aware of."

This small group of children is chosen from those who apply to take part in a wreath-laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington Cemetery. The students write essays describing why they want to take part in the ceremony.

Grossenbacher said he's been involved in organizing the trip, and the students' participation in the ceremony, for about nine to 10 years, but the tradition is much more longstanding than that. He said it dates back to about the mid-90s.

The kids were excited about the trip, Grossenbacher acknowledged. He said the ceremony is usually reserved for elected officials and foreign dignitaries, but also school groups.

The students go to Arlington National Cemetery, arriving early to get set-up, then work with the honor guard stationed there for the ceremony.

"It's a public ceremony," Grossenbacher said. "So there are always people there watching. Probably numbering somewhere in the hundreds."

This year around about 112 Hudson and St. Patrick's middle school students went on the trip, and four took part in the wreath ceremony.

Grossenbacher said he's proud of the kids and that this year's ceremony went very well.

This year's participants included: Anna Jensen, Kaleb Maxwell, Andrea Beyer and Madilynn Leininger.

In her essay, Jensen wrote about her great uncle, who was a soldier stationed in Honolulu who died in the attack on Pearl Harbor. She said his loss caused great heartache for her family over the years.

"I cannot begin to imagine how hard it would be on a family that never found out what happened to their loved one," Jensen said. "I want to lay a wreath on the tomb of the Unknown Soldier as a way to say all of those important words that couldn't be said of bravery, selflessness and heartbreak.

"I want to represent my great uncle and his bravery. I want to show admiration for those who understand the importance of 'we' and not 'me' and fought every day for it. But most importantly, I want to be the voice for all of those families that lost someone, and those who were lost."

Maxwell too had family who served in the military, including two great-grandfathers who served in World War II, and a grandfather who served in the Vietnam war.

"They wanted to protect America from the evil in the world, and they wanted to have a united country that was not split," Maxwell said.

He said though he feels the country has been divided since the turn of the century, the grave of the unknown soldier is a symbol of American unity.

"For me, to lay a wreath there would mean to me to represent all of the veterans of America, especially the ones in my family," Maxwell said. "I want to do this not for me, but for those who came before me."

Beyer's father Duane's military service has taken him to many countries in the Middle East. Other relatives of hers who have served or are still serving in the military include her brother, two cousins, two uncles and two grandfathers.

"The laying of the wreath would be an extremely high honor for me as a young student who looks up to our men and women in uniform who make the ultimate sacrifices for the freedom of our country," Beyer wrote. "Therefore, it would be a great honor to be selected for the laying of the wreath ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery."

Leininger has been researching military history, including speaking with veterans who served in the military, particularly the Air Force. She said being a part of the wreath laying ceremony would allow her to represent the veterans she's met in her research, including two she met in Wisconsin Dells over Memorial Day weekend.

"This is not just about myself but after speaking with these men, I have learned from these men about the wars they served in, the men who were drafted, the men who chose to go, for me and my freedoms, for my family and neighbors, and for that in which the United States of America stands for," Leininger wrote. "By doing this, I not only represent myself, I represent those who served. And it would be a gift. I would like to hand them a picture of me laying a wreath at the tomb of the Unknown Soldier."

This year's trip took place the last week of June.

"I think it's a great thing not only for the kids who are involved but for the students who get to watch (the wreath ceremony)," he said. "And you know, it's a great way for the community of Hudson to have that connection, annually, to our nation's capital, and more specifically to Arlington National Cemetery and the tomb of the unknowns... Every year, at least for a brief time, there's a wreath that says Hudson Middle School, St. Patrick's Middle School."

Gretta Stark

Gretta Stark has been a reporter for the River Falls Journal since July of 2013. She previously worked as a reporter for the New Richmond News from June 2012 to July 2013. She holds a BA in Print and Electronic Media from Wartburg College.

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