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RACINE — Dry eyes were sparse, and colors of red, white, and blue filled the auditorium on Nov. 10, 2022, at the annual Veterans Day Program event at Gifford School, 8332 Northwestern Ave.

Veterans Day at Gifford 2022
The annual Veterans Day celebration at Gifford Elementary School in Racine, Wis. honored dozens of veterans in attendance. – Credit: Emma Widmar

This year’s program featured an assembly that gave students the opportunity to learn about Veterans Day. Students performed a play resembling the Star and Stripes Honor Flight, an event that flies veterans to visit Washington D.C. This gave insight to students while honoring veterans present.

Among the audience members were a 101-year-old U.S. Navy/World War II veteran, a U.S. Air Force/Vietnam War veteran, and several other service members from various branches.

School-age children were invited to welcome a guest service member of their choice. Veterans who attended received accolades for their service during this special program.

“It’s an honor to be in the presence of so many people who served,” said Alina Keller, an 8th-grade student who was present at the assembly.

Key points included explaining memorials present in Washington D.C., Tapps being played on the trumpet, and a mail call at the school.

When honor flights take place, at the end of each flight, a “mail call” takes place.

Each veteran at Gifford received a packet of “mail” – consisting of letters, cards, drawings, and thank-you notes – that was distributed by students during the assembly. This mimicked the Honor Flight’s mail call.

Veterans Day at Gifford 2022
Students at Gifford Elementary participated in the honoring of veterans. – Credit: Emma Widmar

Also, students lined the stage with posters welcoming the service members home, just like they would after an honor flight.

Recognized Veterans

Spotlight on World War II veteran

Among the veterans who were highlighted during the event was Henry Kral, who is 101 years old, and a grandfather to multiple great-grandchildren at Gifford.

Veterans Day at Gifford 2022
Mackenzie (4K) and Olivia (5K) Collins and their great-grandfather, 101-year-old U.S. Navy World War II veteran, Henry Kral. – Credit: Emma Widmar

Mackenzie (4K) and Olivia (5K) Collins, students at Gifford, sat alongside their beloved veteran at the event, with their mom.

His granddaughter, Tiffany Collins, is a special education educator at Wadewitz Elementary School. Collins shared with the Racine County Eye that the military has had a grand impact on their family.

Kral is from Sturtevant, Wisc., and attended Horlick High School. He was drafted and assigned to the U.S. Navy in 1941. He served from 1942 to 1945 as an aircraft hydraulics technician.

“I did whatever they wanted me to do,” said the veteran.

He went to basic training at Great Lakes Naval Base in Ill. He also received training at the University of Chicago. Kral spent time stationed in Watsonville, California.

His son, Tom Kral, was also present and reflected on his father’s career. He says his father was proud to serve.

“He loves telling his stories,” said Tiffany.

One of his favorite stories to share, as explained by Tiffany, is how he and his wife, Betty, were united in marriage. They were given a 48-hour pass to wed and uniting in a marriage allowed her to go with him.

The veteran was amazed by how many students were in attendance. He’d never experienced a celebration like it. His family expressed what an honor it was to be involved. The family shared many smiles and hugs.

Henry was honorably discharged in December of 1945 with the rank of Chief Petty Officer, the highest rank for a non-commissioned officer. He returned to Racine, by train, after serving and went on to have four children, six grandchildren, and 10 great-grandchildren.

Veterans Day at Gifford 2022
Tom Kral stands with his granddaughter, Mackenzie (4K), next to Tom’s father, World War II veteran Henry Kral. – Credit: Emma Widmar

Appreciating a local Vietnam War veteran

Penelope Mersenski invited her Papa, Tom Basta, to the program. Basta served in the U.S. Air Force on two different tours to Vietnam during the Vietnam War.

“My first duty station was at Grissom Air Force Base in Indiana. Then I went to Vietnam. Then I ended up serving my last 8 and a half months in Northern California,” said the airman.

He served a total of four years as an aircraft maintenance person.

“You didn’t talk about it (the war) when you got back,” said Basta.

When asked how it felt to finally be recognized and to be proud of his service, Basta was speechless. Tears welled in his eyes and at that moment his granddaughter, Penelope hugged her grandfather.

After composing himself, he said “it’s emotional,” and this ceremony meant more today than words could say.

Veterans Day at Gifford 2022
Tom Basta (left, standing) is recognized alongside another Air Force Veteran. – Credit: Emma Widmar
Veterans Day at Gifford 2022
Basta receives a packet of mail during mail call. – Credit: Emma Widmar
Veterans Day at Gifford 2022
Basta opens his packet of mail during the mail call. – Credit: Emma Widmar

Basta is not only appreciative of today’s event because of what the military meant to him, but also to his wife.

Vicky Basta, his wife, who was not present at the event, was on his mind too. She was also in the Air Force, serving as a medic. While invited to the event, she was busy caring for her other grandchildren.

“I actually met her the day she went into service, the day she signed,” says Basta.

He had completed his service by the time they met, nevertheless, the military impacted their relationship going forward. He explained she had a delayed enlistment.

“She signed up in December, and she didn’t leave until April,” says Basta.

Despite their sacrifices of being long-distance, serving outweighed the separation.

Other veterans honored

Each Veteran’s story is unique to their time spent in the service. Other veterans honored include:

  • Ken & Peggy (1970-1974)
  • Caleb Butler (Iraq – 4 years)
  • Thomas Debaker
  • Steve Pace
  • Sean Doyle (Iraq – 4 years active duty)
  • Sr. Robert Eppler (Bay of Pigs, Cuban Crisis – 1958-1964)
  • Sr. Pete Feest (Vietnam – 4 years)
  • Jeff Frievalt (Air Force – 20 years)
  • Paul Gapinski
  • Milton Gardiner and wife (Army – 2 years)
  • Chuck Hartig (Army – 4 years)
  • Jim Herzog (Vietnam-Thailand – 4 years)
  • Joshua Jacobs (Enduring Freedom-Afghanistan – 6 years)
  • Steve Tencate (Iraq – 6 years)
  • Larry Thysell (1963-1965)
  • Ronald Witt
  • Chuck Kirchner (Afghanistan – 32 years)
  • Ben Klenke ( Iraq – 6 years)
  • James McGarity (Desert Shield/Desert Storm – 8 years)
  • Toby McGuire (Marines – 2 years)
  • Gerald Moravec (1974-1975)
  • Jacob Mycon
  • Chris Petrick (Iraqi Freedom – 17 years)
  • Jacqueline Pfeilstifter (Army Reserves – 6 years)
  • Larry Reynolds
  • Kevin Schmidt
  • Mark Sorensen (Grenada, Desert Storm, Cold War)
  • David and Gene Standiford (Korean War – 1952-1954)
  • Robert Warrington (8 years)

Ian Gardiner, 6th grade, plays Taps during the program.

Veterans Day at Gifford 2022
Students hold posters during the event, mimicking what people would do when veterans return home after an honor flight. – Credit: Emma Widmar

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