To Drew Godfrey, a true hero is not the star athlete who can run the football down field or can slam dunk a shot through the hoop.

“The people who serve in the military are my heroes,” the boy said Friday as the student body of St. Patrick’s School saluted veterans past and present.

“They put their lives on the battlefield so we can live free,” Godfrey said. “They jump into action when called. They do not ask for glory, riches or publicity. They run into areas others are running away from. This is a sign of a true hero.”

The reading of his essay was among the highlights of an annual tribute to veterans that also included a slideshow of student relatives in uniform.

Dozens of photographs graced the screen as theme music played from the movie “Gettysburg.” There were images of mothers, fathers, grandparents, uncles and aunts from all the service branches with little notes on how they were related to the children of St. Patrick’s School.

Army Col. Brian Cook, operations officer at the Army War College in Carlisle, was impressed by the symbolism of a program that featured the student body singing songs of thanksgiving on Veterans Day.

“It is amazing when you see the children connect the day that means so much to us to their world,” said Cook, father of Grace, a first-grader at St. Patrick’s.

“Of course, it’s emotional,” Cook added. “I have plenty of friends here. I have plenty of friends across the world. I have plenty of friends who cannot be here because they sacrificed a little too much.”

Standing nearby was Vietnam War veteran Paul James, who served a tour with the 25th Infantry Division from 1967 to 1968. He was a sergeant in charge of a squad tasked with search-and-destroy missions.

“The program was great,” said James, who recalled the abuse heaped upon veterans by war protesters upon their return stateside from Southeast Asia. “I wish so many of our friends who are gone could be here now to see that the country has turned around. Vietnam maybe was not a popular war, but we went and we served.”

In outlining his case of what makes a hero, Godfrey mentioned Pat Tillman, the football player who left a career in the NFL to enlist in the Army in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.

“He gave up all this money and fame when his country called him to serve,” Godfrey said. “Unfortunately, Pat Tillman gave his life fighting for this country. This is a debt I could never repay.”

The sacrifices made by veterans protect the freedom of expression that allows NFL football players to kneel instead of stand on the sidelines when the National Anthem is played, Godfrey said.

For Robert Gambert, a retired Army chief warrant officer, the whole day Friday was an emotional uplift. “It was not only patriotic, it was spiritual. It was the combination of the patriotism and the youth and all the friendship.”

A Vietnam War veteran now living in South Middleton Township, Gambert was encouraged by what he saw in the students of St. Patrick’s School. “It was important for them to connect.”

For Edward Gardner of Carlisle, the connection was much more nostalgic. “The way they acted … the way they sang. I was that age in a Catholic school. I was just wondering which one was I like.”

A World War II Army veteran, Gardner was drafted on May 7, 1945 – a day before Germany surrendered. “They saw me coming,” Gardner joked. By the time his training ended, Japan had also surrendered.

Gardner thought, with the war’s end, he would be transferred back stateside. Instead, he was sent to Nuremberg, Germany, where he served as a guard to Nazi war criminals.

Email Joseph Cress at jcress@cumberlink.com

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