WINCHESTER — Sgt. 1st Class T.J. Clarke, a Virginia Army National Guard recruiter and a 2004 graduate of Handley High School, returned to his alma mater on Monday to share what it means to give thanks to the country’s military veterans on Veterans Day.

“Veterans don’t join the service to be recognized, however giving thanks to our veterans is appreciated,” Clarke told students gathered in the Patsy Cline Theatre for the school’s annual Veterans Day program.

The program was attended by local veterans, who were served breakfast by student leaders beforehand.

Clarke, who was deployed to Iraq from 2008-09, said while the United States has its issues, he still considers it the best country in the world. As someone who served overseas, he told the students they have a “darn good” life here.

“We are free to do mostly what we want in this great country,” Clarke said. “We live in diverse communities, we have freedom of speech, the freedom to bear arms.”

As he reflected on these freedoms, he reminded the audience that “freedom is never free.”

Veterans and their families pay a price for it.

“Our military families are the backbone of our veterans,” Clarke said. When a service member is deployed, “all the burdens of everyday life fall on the family.”

He experienced that firsthand when his own father was deployed, leaving his mother to raise five children on her own while he was gone.

Clarke reminded students about the history of Veterans Day, which came about when fighting ceased in World War I and an armistice was declared between the Allied nations and Germany on Nov. 11, 1918. The next year, President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed Nov. 11 as Armistice Day, which was renamed Veterans Day in 1954.

Handley sophomore Rhease Greynolds, 15, said he never considered the freedoms he had living in the U.S. compared to other countries until Clarke mentioned it in his speech. Rhease added that he’s considered joining the Air Force. The only thing holding him back is his fear of heights.

Denny Carper, 81, of Winchester, was among the veterans who attended the program. He tracked Russian submarines up and down the east coast and the Atlantic during his military service in the Navy.

Carper has attended Handley’s Veterans Day program the past four years. He said more people have thanked him for his military service in the past five years than when he first left the military in the 1960s, something he credited to the unpopularity of the Vietnam War, which didn’t have a lot of public support at the time.

“Today I can’t tell you how many times people have come up and thanked me for my service,” Carper said.

Tim Gowdy, 63, of Berryville, who served in the Air Force from 1978 to 2001, said Clarke’s words about family sacrifice and freedom resonated with him to the point of tears. This was Gowdy’s first time attending the program.

“He hit all the right points,” Gowdy said about Clarke’s speech.

— Contact Anna Merod at amerod@winchesterstar.com

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