Western Wayne Celebrates Veterans Day

As a tradition for many years, Western Wayne administration, faculty, staff, and students joined together on Thursday, Nov. 10, to celebrate veterans in the community with a special in-school event that featured music from the high school band and chorus, wise words from a veteran guest speaker, and this year the event had the added component of a question and answer session with the veterans. Many local veterans attended the presentation at Western Wayne. Some of which had special connections to Western Wayne students. Sergeant Gary Sereno, Army veteran, attended the event to spend the day honoring veterans with his granddaughters Cailey and Mikayla Fullone. Sereno served in Vietnam from 1966-1968 in the 25th infantry division. Sereno was shot and wounded on his 28th day in the field. He remembers that moment vividly. He explained that what kept him going in the army was his new bride Marsha Sereno, who he married a month and a day before he went off to war. “We would write letters to each other daily,” Sereno explained. “I remember that I was holding a letter to send to her when I was shot.” Sereno went to two different Army hospitals after being wounded and then was sent home to further recover. He recalls later in his Army career that he served in a basic training camp as a supply sergeant in Fort Knox, Kentucky. “During this time I got to work with some soldiers who were away from home for the first time,” Sereno said. “I got to talk to them and help them through.” He then went on to work for 55 years with special needs individuals in a vocational setting in New York. His wife worked for a newspaper for a time. Throughout their marriage they continued to write letters to each other no matter if they were apart or together. It was a special way they communicated. “Loving someone is a choice you make every day,” Sereno said. Sadly his wife of 55 years passed away recently. However, his love for both her and his country remains strong. “I love my country,” Sereno said. “We soldiers do what we are told and we do it well.”

Navy Seaman Harry Howell also had a special story to share of his journey after his time in the service. In 2018, the Western Wayne School District gave Howell his diploma after he earned his GED 50 years after he was first in school. This was such a special occasion for Howell because the same year his granddaughter Ella Patackas received her high school diploma from Mount Saint Joseph Academy in Philadelphia. Howell is extremely proud of his granddaughter’s accomplishments. She recently graduated from the University of North Carolina in the top 60 of her class with a degree in biology. Howell served as a seaman for six years. The carrier he was stationed on was the USS Essex. He traveled the arctic circle twice before his Navy career was over. In addition, Howell would go on to serve for eight years on the Western Wayne School Board. Today Howell is a member of number 80 Sweeney Post in Hamlin. “I enjoy spending time with the veterans at my post and at events such as this,” Howell explained. “It is nice what the administration and kids do to honor us.” Another veteran who was grateful to be honored by the school was Melissa McWilliams of Lake Wallenpaupack. McWilliams was an Army sergeant who served five years and was a paratrooper. Before she joined the military and spent time in Afghanistan, McWilliams started her nursing degree at Old Dominion University and then would go on to finish it after she served at Texas A&M University. McWilliams works time with a variety of Western Wayne students through her job at Wayne County Drug and Alcohol. She is a prevention specialist and offers services at local middle and high schools for students who are struggling socially and emotionally. “I like to encourage them and let them know that what they are going through won’t be a part of their lives forever,” McWilliams explained. McWilliams spoke at the question and answer session to the middle school and high school student body and especially encouraged the young ladies in the audience. “It is mind over matter,” she said. “You can get through it if you want to join the military.” Another proud female veteran in attendance at the event was Tara Jordan, former Army specialist. She served from 2006 to 2010. Jordan’s children attend Western Wayne. She was thrilled to be there to see her son Zach Jordan play with the Western Wayne Band for the event. “It’s nice to see so many coming together to celebrate veterans,” Jordan said. Highlights of the event included some beautifully performed patriotic pieces by the Western Wayne High School chorus and band. The veterans also were treated to a lunch prepared by students in Mrs. Stephanie Zoppi’s culinary classes. Western Wayne’s Student Ambassadors also welcomed and assisted the veterans. “I really enjoyed learning the history of the veterans themselves and what they experienced,” Khloe Mistishin, 9th grade student ambassador said. The guest speaker for the event was First Lieutenant Nicholas VanLeuven. VanLeuven graduated from Western Wayne High School in 2012. He lettered in varsity football and track and field. He participated in FBLA and TSA. He went to Millersville University on a 3.5 year ROTC scholarship where he received a bachelors in science in chemistry with a concentration in biochemistry. He also studied military science and in 2016 was commissioned into the United States Army serving in the PA Army National Guard. He graduated in the top 5% of the commissioning class of 2016 for all Second Lieutenants that year. He worked for multiple years in pharmaceuticals at Eurofins Lancaster Labs after graduating college. He was assigned to the 103D Brigade Engineer Battalion in May 2016 where he served as the chemical, biological, radioactivity, nuclear reconnaissance platoon leader for the 103D BEB at Fort Mifflin, Philadelphia. While serving as a platoon leader, he successfully conducted a rotation at the National Training Center in Fort Irwin California. He also served as the Battalion Chemical Officer. He was the Officer in charge for COVID operations in Philadelphia for the 103D BEB. The missions he led were constructing a field medical hospital at the Glen Mills High School, Mortuary Affairs, and Logistical Support for the local community. Shortly after that he was an operations officer for the implementation of soldiers into Philadelphia to ensure peaceful protests after the death of George Floyd. He then later acted as the Company Commander for HHC 103D BEB during more implementations of soldiers in Philadelphia in November 2020. His current assignment is with the 3rd Weapons of Mass Destruction Civil Support Team in Fort Indiantown Gap since January 2021. He serves as the unit’s Nuclear Medical Science Officer, operating a fully functional Mobile Laboratory that can conduct field analysis of unknown agents.He currently resides in Bernville, PA, with his wife and two sons. VanLeuven’s awards and major achievements include the Army Achievement Medal and Armed Forces Service Medal. In addition, he also earned the Pennsylvania Service Ribbon with Gold Star Device. VanLeuven felt thrilled to be back at his alma mater. “Once I knew I was coming back to speak to the students I was excited to be a role model for them,” he explained. “I can so clearly remember my time as a student at Western Wayne. I’m here as an example for them. Everything I learned here at Western Wayne set me up for my future.” VanLeuven spoke to the students in great detail about the jobs that the National Guard do on a daily basis. VanLeuven explained how he got to aid the community during the civil unrest in 2020 in Philadelphia. He never imagined himself doing that when he signed up for the service, but he was so happy that he could help people have the ability to exercise their civil rights during that difficult time. “We were there as a presence to ensure peaceful protest,” VanLeuven explained. “The Pennsylvania National Guard has been nothing but rewarding to me.” VanLeuven inspired the students to meet their local veterans in attendance at the assembly. “Today go out and thank and shake a veteran’s hand,” he said. “Hear their stories. I hope my speech and today’s events opened your eyes to the greatness that is the American veteran.” The audience was then treated to a question and answer session with some of the veterans. Students asked a wide variety of questions, and the veterans provided some very realistic answers about the tough conditions in combat, basic training, etc. The veterans encouraged students to join the military if they are unsure of their path because they could serve first and then choose any career or course of study they wanted within the military or assisted by the military. They also spoke about the strong friendships made in the service. “You make the greatest friends that you keep forever,” McWilliams said. VanLeuven continued to encourage the students to be thankful to veterans and to consider joining the service during the question and answer session. “I loved chemistry, and I’m still doing it to this day in the service,” VanLeuven explained. “I’m a scientist in the Army. If you are a natural born leader then I truly encourage you to join and be a leader in the military. I don’t think you will regret it.”

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