Students, faculty, government officials, friends and veterans got to see a different side of Dr. Michael O'Brien, Ridgway's first-year superintendent, Thursday morning during a Veterans Day ceremony.
O'Brien, a veteran of the United States Air Force, was humbled by the chance to speak Thursday as he spoke of the importance of being a veteran and just how exclusive that club is.
"I appreciate the opportunity to speak [Thursday] and I was filled with a plethora of emotions when asked," O'Brien said. "First, I was honored then humbled then anxious, but then most importantly I was excited. I was honored because I am a veteran and Veterans Day calls for me to reflect not only on those that I served with but also those in in my family.
"I was honored because of the sacrifices that I know many of our veterans sitting in front of us have made as well as those who are not able to sit in front of us. I was honored and I wish to thank those veterans because truly I am really not worthy to speak in front of such worthy veterans."
Speaking to middle and high school students, along with various local dignitaries, including county commissioners June H. Sorg and Daniel R. Freeburg, Ridgway mayor Dr. Guillermo Udarbe, Elk County treasurer Peggy B. Schneider, and state Representative Matt Gabler, representing the 75th Legislative District, O'Brien said Thursday he was humbled by the opportunity because he understands the service that many veterans give to our country.
"I was humbled because I know many of them never made it home," O'Brien said. "I was humbled because there are those currently serving who do not have the opportunity to be here to speak.
"I was anxious because this is my first time speaking to you as a collective body but I was excited to share my views about Veterans Day."
To better enhance the speech for the students, O'Brien posed two questions.
"We start with the easy one-- what is a veteran?" O'Brien asked. "A veteran is nothing more than someone like you-- a normal person, a human being-- the only difference is they serve, whether they were drafted or volunteered, they served.
"It's funny because we're continuing to increase our disconnect with the military and the reason for that is not because we intend to but because the current status of our military needs fewer men and women to do the things that need to be done because of technology.
"Less than one percent of our entire population will serve or has served in the military. It's amazing that you understand that more people will work at Wal-Mart than those who have and will serve our country."
O'Brien's second question was a bit more difficult to answer.
"What does it mean to be a veteran? I can't answer that for anybody other than myself because your experiences, what you saw, what you were trained to do, what you did, whether you believed that you had to or not-- you didn't say 'oh, by the way, explain to me why I have to do that,'" O'Brien said. "You're trained and you do what you're asked to do."
O'Brien was able to personalize this by sharing stories about some of his own family members.
"Hopefully some of you will think of some of your family members," O'Brien said. "I also want to talk about family members because we don't understand that serving in our country sometimes affects people for a long, long time. Sometimes it never stops affecting us.
"If you heard recently in the papers, there was a young gentleman who served our country in Iraq, 24 years old, and took hostages at a college and created issues. Was it because of his military experience? I don't know, but I can reflect on the experiences of my family."
O'Brien's father was an Air Force veteran and as he put it, his father had it easy.
"He was stationed in England, met my mom, they moved back to the States after he served our country and raised eight kids, and had a great life," O'Brien said. "My father-in-law is a Korean War veteran, a Marine sharpshooter, and he was wounded in combat, shot in the spine.
"Until we moved here to Elk County, they still live at our farm and we've taken care of them for the last 17 years. I'd watch him hobble everyday to and from the barn. He lives with his injury."
But other members of his family aren't so lucky.
"My uncle Bob served in the Army in Vietnam and he unfortunately suffered some injuries," O'Brien said. "There was a bomb that exploded near his convoy and he suffered facial and shoulder injuries that he continues to deal with. My Uncle Mike whom I was named after, came home from war and we thought everything was great-- he got married, raised kids, then committed suicide.
"The note indicated some of his service experiences. I had a cousin, Earl, he served in Vietnam and became addicted to drugs. When he came back, he was what I call a 'mush-head'-- he did so much damage to his brain in Vietnam that he cannot function as you and I. Being a veteran is an individual thing and each one sitting here can speak to that, and to their experiences."
Taking a more global perspective, O'Brien recognized certain time periods and paid homage to Bill Peterson, a World War II veteran of the U.S. Navy.
"World War I and World War II veterans solidified this country," O'Brien said. "Korean and Vietnam veterans were asked to do the impossible. They weren't even recognized as a war-- they never received credit for their service.
"We now call them 'conflicts' yet our soldiers from Afghanistan and Iraq and other conflicts that you never hear about come home without arms and legs, without eyes, yet we don't call it 'war,' we call it 'conflict.'"
Pick up a copy of the Friday, Nov. 11, 2011 edition of The Ridgway Record for more.