JCPS Honors County Veterans With Annual Celebration

By: Robin Koppen
JCPS Communication Specialist

Ryan Tillett (right), a Smithfield-Selma High JROTC Cadet, serves a meal to WWII veteran Tom Hinnant at the Johnston County Public Schools annual Veterans Day celebration.

SMITHFIELD – Johnston County Public Schools held its 17th annual Veterans Day celebration to honor and recognize all Johnston County veterans for their service on Thursday, Nov. 11.

In an abundance of caution to keep the veterans, their families, and JCPS staff safe from COVID-19, the event was held virtually again this year.

“Our veterans have done so much for our country that our district worked to ensure this year’s celebration, albeit virtual, honored our men and women of the United States Armed Forces the best and safest way possible,” said Caitlin Furr, Executive Director of Communication for Johnston County Public Schools.

Active and retired veterans of Johnston County were honored with a multitude of tributes molded into a virtual extravaganza befitting the heroes of our United States Armed Forces.

Participants of the virtual ceremony included retired Fort Bragg Chief of Operations Pascal Goicoechea, Johnston County Director of Veterans Services Robert Boyette, JROTC (Junior Reserve Officer Training) cadets from seven JCPS high schools, the 2020 Johnston County All-County Chorus, the Corinth Holders High School Marching Band, and the North Johnston High Chorus.

This year’s presentation was particularly special as portions of past and present celebrations were used to honor the county’s veterans.

Smithfield-Selma High JROTC cadets line the entryway to the school to welcome Johnston County veterans to the district’s annual Veterans Day celebration.

Guest speaker Pascual “GoGo” Goicoechea delivered the keynote address. Born and raised in Cuba, in 1960 he and his family came to the United States. They moved to Texas and he learned English with a “Texas harmony and twang” to it. To further him along, his English teacher gave him a history book to read at home.

In 1969, Goicoechea was at a crossroads in his life. He shared that he was in college for all the wrong reasons and was headed nowhere fast. On July 20, 1969, when Apollo 11 landed on the moon, he and his friends had an “AHA!” moment. That moment led him to enlist in the military.

“I fell in love with the discipline,” Goicoechea said. In 1977, “GoGo”, as he is known by his comrades, was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant of Infantry in the United States Army.

Over the next 33 years he served mostly in worldwide command assignments, in garrison (military outposts) and combat environments. In 2010 he retired as Chief of Operations at Fort Bragg. He and his wife currently reside in Clayton, and he serves as a member of the Clayton Rotary.

Goicoechea began his address by asking, “What is a veteran?” Webster’s dictionary states that a veteran is someone with a record of military service or historical association with an event.

Veterans Day, formerly Armistice Day, became a national holiday in 1950 signaling the end of WWI on the eleventh day of the eleventh month at the eleventh hour. Veterans Days commemorates the end of WWI, WWII, and honors all living veterans of the United States Armed Forces.

Smithfield-Selma High JROTC cadets welcome veterans and present them with their annual commemorative pin, cards made by JCPS elementary school students, and American flags.

WWI was named “the war to end all wars”, although WWII was greater still. With 120,000 United States soldiers killed in combat, WWI included warfare never before seen because of the introduction of devices like submarines, torpedos, airplanes, zeppelins, parachutes, mines, chemical gas, tanks, and motor vehicles.

GoGo also spoke of being part of an exclusive 1% club that makes up the U.S. Armed Forces. Although he and his fellow comrades were from diverse backgrounds, they molded into one. “We lost the words ‘me’ and ‘I’ and became ‘us’”, he said.

In basic training, GoGo said they even learned a little religion. “We learned that God on the seventh day for the Army and Marine Corps had created the Sergeant Major, and for the Air Force and Navy, the Senior Master Chiefs,” he laughed. The rank structure of the Armed Forces was formed from there.

GoGo went further to say that was on the seventh day, and that on the first day God created the “greatest force multiplier”, the American woman in uniform. “Women make up 19 percent of the entire fighting force and without which the other 81 percent would not get the green light without their support,” he exclaimed.

He shared that comrades had nicknames for one another such as frog, monk, coyote, squids, wing nuts and coasties. Their most valuable possession was their rifle and right behind in a close second was a P38 can opener, both going everywhere with the soldiers.

GoGo gave advice to JCPS JROTC cadets, the focus of this year’s celebration. In addition to honoring current and retired veterans, this year’s celebration highlighted the next generation of veterans. JROTC cadets from seven JCPS high schools were interviewed for the celebration.

Johnston County Director of Veterans Services Robert Boyette welcomes local veterans at annual Veterans Day celebration.

Lastly, he told the approximately 659 JROTC cadets of JCPS, “Be aware that the freedoms we enjoy today were earned by millions of men and women who sacrificed so much to be part of that one percent club.”

The National Defense Act of 1916 established organized JROTC programs at public and private educational institutions. Initially, JROTC was exclusively for the US Army. In 1964, Congress expanded the program to include all military branches and changed from active duty to share support from the services and schools.

Title 10 United States Code, Section 2031, as mandated by Congress, states that each military service must have a JROTC program to “instill in students in United States secondary educational institutions the values of citizenship, service to the United States, and personal responsibility and a sense of accomplishment.”

Johnston County Public Schools has seven JROTC programs in high schools throughout the county, totaling approximately 650 young men and women.

JROTC’s mission is “To Motivate Young People to be Better Citizens”, and community service is a part of the development of the cadets. They conduct military-style drills, participate in competitions and team building activities. However, when speaking with a JROTC cadet, it is quickly apparent that there is much more to the program.

North Johnston High School cadet Johanna Morales has learned respect and leadership skills, but the program has given her something else, something even deeper.

Smithfield-Selma High JROTC Instructor Matthew DesChamps greets veterans during the drive-through meal service at the district’s annual Veterans Day celebration.

“My favorite thing about JROTC is how close you end up getting to people you didn’t even know, “ she said. “Friends become family and that’s what I like about it.”

Once Morales graduates, she plans to go to college, study criminal justice, and then become an officer in the Marines.

For anyone thinking of joining JROTC, her advice is to simply do it. “High school goes by very quickly and with JROTC you will enjoy every second of it!” she exclaimed.

Clayton High School freshman Zhaionne Sison saw JROTC as a way to “be a part of something meaningful.” Sison remembered JROTC cadets coming to her middle school and performing the color guard for different events which inspired her to join.

Just in her first year of JROTC, she said, “I have learned to be more confident.” She already has a plan for after high school that consists of college and becoming an interpreter. Sison also wants to learn sign language so she can help people with disabilities.

“The skills I’ve learned will help me a lot with leading my own life, making those hard decisions and having the discipline to keep my priorities straight,” she said.

Community members and Johnston County veterans came together to celebrate Veterans Day at Smithfield-Selma High. Photographed (from left) are Devell “Bo” Durham, Steven Narron, and Lauren Driver. Steven holds a card made by JCPS elementary school students.

For West Johnston County High School seniors, A’Rheanna Turay and Breanna Stephenson, their hopes are high and the sky’s the limit. Turay’s plans include attending medical school and becoming a military physician. “I just really want to be able to help people. That’s my passion,” she said.

Stephenson is hopeful for a military scholarship to attend Michigan State University. She wants to study criminal justice, become a private investigator, and get assigned to a case that will be followed by the public worldwide. “I want to be one of those people to work on it,” she said enthusiastically.

Both young ladies have created a path for their futures with the help of JROTC. “My JROTC leaders have influenced me to become a better citizen and pushed me to strive for and achieve my goals,” Turay stated.

Turay was inspired by her uncle who served in the Marines and the Army. She knew the opportunities it would offer her and she was looking for a way to expand on her leadership skills. “I knew it would be a cool way to do what I wanted and serve my country,” she said.

When Stephenson was picking her electives as a freshman at West Johnston High, she saw JROTC as an option and thought, “Why not give it a shot?” Now she’s in her fourth year.

Her grandfather was an Army dog handler and her uncle was in the Marines so she had that experience to draw upon for reference.

Stephenson said the most valuable thing she’s gained in JROTC is her voice. She said when she was a freshman her voice was squeaky. “Now I have a tone in my voice…stern,” she smiled with pride.

WWII Veterans Bill Denning (left) talks with Smithfield-Selma High JROTC cadet Shante Brooks (right).

When asked who her heroes are, she named her parents first and in a close second is Colonel Warren Singleton. “He inspired me to grow up, get some manners, and be a stronger person,” she said.

Without a doubt, these cadet’s favorite thing about JROTC is the bonds they make with each other. They participate in lots of team based activities which teaches them to pull their resources together. “It’s like a family here, “ Stephenson said. “We can lean on each other.”

Private First Class Zachary Barefoot said joining JROTC was the best decision he ever made. A 2020 graduate of South Johnston High School, Barefoot was inspired by his father who was in the military. “He showed me what I was going to be a part of,” he said.

Barefoot graduated early and immediately enlisted in the National Guard. He has now completed his Advanced Individual Training (AIT) and plans to use his benefits from the National Guard to attend college.

Although his dad inspired him to join JROTC, he said, “I didn’t realize the commitment it takes to be part of something this big.” He took for granted the sacrifice that veterans made but says of veterans now, “Nobody can do what you do. You’ll always be remembered.”

Johnston County Director of Veterans Services Robert Boyette is a retired veteran with 30 years served in the US Army. Raised in Johnston and Harnett counties, he entered the military at age 18.

For Boyette, Veterans Day is “an opportunity to celebrate, honor, and remember the sacrifices of the men and women who have served so that we may enjoy our freedom and the benefits of our democracy.”

Cleveland High School Key Club Members help prepare meals at the district’s annual Veterans Day celebration at Smithfield-Selma High.

He is encouraged to see JROTC cadets taking up the torch as the next generation of veterans. “They’re carrying on a tradition,” he stated. “I’m encouraged to know that young people care about our country.”

He believes the program is a perfect way to understand what the military is all about without any commitment to enlist after high school. For students thinking of joining JROTC, Boyette’s advice is this, “You’ll quickly learn the difference between a friend and a comrade.”

GoGo’s advice to the next generation of veterans is this, “I know the training and knowledge you are receiving is unique. Although you are not a veteran yet, be mindful of our history and the veterans around you daily.”

To continue to keep our veterans and JCPS staff safe, the ceremony portion of this year’s event was virtual. The online program began at 11 a.m., and was posted on the district’s Facebook and YouTube pages, where it can continue to be enjoyed by all. This was the 17th anniversary of the ceremony, and the second year that the event was virtual.

Following the online celebration, all Johnston County veterans were invited to Smithfield-Selma High School for a curbside meal from 12 p.m.-2 p.m. The campus was decorated with 50 American Flags, which were provided by the Rotary Club.

Onsite were Smithfield-Selma High JROTC cadets, Cleveland High Key Club Members, local Boy Scouts, JCPS staff, and members of the community to welcome and serve veterans. In total, JCPS students and staff served nearly 600 meals to Johnston County veterans and their families.