‘Freedom is not free’

Ellsworth Middle School hosts Veterans Day program

By Sarah Nigbor
Posted 11/15/23

Eighth grade choir students hold an “Army” during “A Tribute to the Armed Services,” asking those who had served in the Army to stand up for recognition Friday, Nov. 10.

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‘Freedom is not free’

Ellsworth Middle School hosts Veterans Day program


Eighth grade choir students hold an “Army” during “A Tribute to the Armed Services,” asking those who had served in the Army to stand up for recognition Friday, Nov. 10.

Ellsworth Middle School is known throughout the area for its Veterans Day program, much of which is performed by students. This year did not disappoint.

Ellsworth Middle School Principal Olin Morrison, introduced by Master of Ceremonies Nick Foley, commended EMS students for their grace, compassion, resilience and strong commitment to one another in the days following the tragic death of eighth-grader Joshua Johnson.

“The character they displayed in this week was truly honorable, a word that I don’t use lightly,” Morrison said.

He asked students, as he did last year, to look, to listen and to learn from veterans.  

“It’s not just the grand acts of bravery on the battlefield that define their character,” Morrison said. “But also the small, everyday sacrifices that often go unnoticed. Our veterans teach us the profound sacrifice of putting others before oneself, about sacrifice for the greater good. And veterans have an unwavering commitment to serving something larger than themselves, be it their country, their fellow citizens or their ideals.”

Their dedication to serve and their willingness to put their lives on the line for the safety and well-being of others serves as a poignant reminder of the importance of selflessness, duty and sacrifice, Morrison said. They remind us of the value of a purpose-driven life.

“Our veterans teach us the value of discipline,” Morrison continued. “Their training instills a strong work ethic and a capable spirit. They carry these values into their civilian life, showing responsibility in their professional roles by being punctual, reliable and diligent in their work. They remind us that any job doing is worth doing right.

“Our veterans teach us about resilience and grit. Their ability to overcome adversity, coupled with resourcefulness and determination allows them to navigate challenges effectively. Drawing from their leadership skills and their service-oriented mentality, veterans often seek support, display strong stress management and exhibit a commitment to self-improvement. Our veterans remind us that we are strong, and stronger together.

“Our veterans teach us to hold fast to those we love. They teach us to prioritize time engaging with people. To put down our phones, our screens and to truly connect.”

Morrison told students that veterans teach us how to care for one another, how to cherish the life and freedoms we are given.

“We are thankful for these lessons,” Morrison said.

He introduced the featured speaker, his cousin Lt. Col. Benjamin Wagner USMC (retired), a man he looked up to as a young boy in rural Wisconsin and later as an adult.

“As I look back on those times spent together, the specific words or actions have been erased by the years. But the feeling is there, clear as day,” Morrison said. “In our ragtag group of cousins, you always felt special when you were with Ben.”

Wagner was commissioned a second lieutenant in the United States Marine Corps upon graduation from UW-Eau Claire through the Platoon Leaders Course Program. Following his commission, he reported to the Basic School, graduating in 1998. He then reported to the Infantry Officers Course, where he earned his military occupational specialty as a Marine Infantry Officer, among other distinctions.

In Fall 1999 he was assigned to Camp Pendleton, Calif., where he eventually assumed the duties of a Rifle Platoon Commander with Company B, 1st Battalion, 1st Marine.

In early 2004, he deployed to Iraq’s Triangle of Death in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. He deployed again to Iraq in early 2008. He also served and led men in Morocco.

In 2015, Wagner transferred to the G7 Section 4th Marine Division located in Louisiana, where he worked as a senior inspecting officer. His final command was in Michigan, after which he retired a highly decorated veteran.

Wagner, who lives in Oconomowoc, spoke about what it means to be a veteran. He served in the military for 24 years. About 6-7% of Americans are veterans, out of 322 million people, Wagner said. Today, without a military draft, the services are all-volunteer forces.

“Today, out of the eligible population of the United States, less than 1% will die in uniform,” Wagner said. “That is significant. One percent are going to become the proverbial sheepdog. What do I mean by sheepdog? … A sheepdog sits on the wall, mans the gate, walks the line, while the other 99% get to enjoy the benefits of what this great country provides them.”

Becoming a veteran is a big deal, Wagner continued, because it’s that 1% who protect our freedoms, guarantee our rights and protect us from the proverbial wolves.

“Veterans are a backbone of our society,” Wagner said. “When they leave service they bring with them traits that I believe society should have ... their honor, courage and commitment should be something we all strive for.”

The program continued with a flag folding ceremony by EMS sixth graders, poetry and readings by seventh and eighth graders, musical performances, reading of the names of Pierce County deceased Korean War Era veterans, and presentation of the Quilt of Valor to Lt. Col. Ryan Casper, a 40-year military veterans and retired Ellsworth High School social studies teacher.

Veterans Day, Ellsworth Middle School, Ellsworth