The students in the Dayton High School gym were on their feet. More than 300 of them were cheering and clapping with wild enthusiasm. It was the kind of reception usually reserved for winning sports teams.
But this ovation was for heroes who made their mark, not on the football field, but on the battlefield - men and women who went to war when they were nearly the same age as the students gathered here.
Some of the veterans from WW II made the trip down the gym’s center aisle in a wheelchair. But there were also veterans from the wars in Korea and Vietnam, clearly not accustomed to such a warm welcome.
The veterans came to take part in Living History Day, a full day of classes devoted to listening to their stories and honoring their courage.
The veterans shared stories of survival. They talked about the buddies they lost, and what it was like when they came home. And for many of these veterans, home was on a reservation.
The Department of Defense notes that the percentage of Native Americans who serve in the military is the highest per capita of any ethnic group.
Don Laudner is a Sioux veteran who drove to Dayton from South Dakota for Living History Day.
“We all went,” he said. “There are 14 of us cousins who volunteered into the Korean War.”
There were also Blackfeet warriors from Montana, Cree and Apache from Arizona. Robert Delsi, an Apache veteran, spoke through tears: “We are not here for recognition. We serve our country because that’s our mother earth. And we are proud to do it.”
The school raised the money to bring the veterans to Dayton from far and near.
Gunny Brandon is a Sioux warrior who lives in McMinnville who fought first in Korea at the age of 18, then in Vietnam at 33.
“I was wounded six times in Vietnam, awarded four purple hearts,” he said. “I spent two years in a hospital, blind for six months of it and I had to learn to walk again. But I done fine."
The kids listened as textbook wars became personal to them. “It was really powerful,” senior Adrian Molina said.
Senior Jennifer Goddik said she learned that freedom isn’t free. “They risked their lives for us.”
The day ended with something the students call the walk of honor. They lined up on each side of the sidewalk outside the gym, and as the veterans passed through they cheered once more. With high fives and handshakes they learned another lesson, it’s never too late to say thank you.