Seventy-one years ago, Allied forces in World War II stormed the beaches of Normandy in what became known as the “D-Day” invasion to drive the Nazis back to Germany.
The Fort Mill High School band and members of the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 9138 came together to mark the significance of that day – June 6 – and raise funds for the band’s trip to Normandy next year. Band officials approached the Fort Mill VFW about hosting the event, and the post members were happy to oblige, said Post Commander Tommy Culp. Organizers chose the date of the fundraiser intentionally to coincide with D-Day.
“We found out they were going to Normandy, so it makes sense,” Culp said. “It’s a military day.”
The band will perform at the American Military Cemetery in Normandy.
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“We wanted to honor why this day matters,” said teacher and band staff member Jason Ford. “We’re trying to connect students with veterans.”
Over the course of a year, students will learn about D-Day through curriculum, movies and appearances by veterans. A World War II veteran contacted band staff and asked if he could speak to students in preparation for the trip.
The FMHS band earned its 24th state championship in marching band last fall. The band has made several high-profile appearances in the past, including performing in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York in 1986 and most recently in the St. Patrick’s Day Parade in Dublin in 2013. In addition, the band has performed at Pearl Harbor three times, in 1998, 2002 and 2007.
“We wanted to try another spot of holy ground, in continental Europe this time,” Ford said.
Not many high schoolers get the opportunity to perform at the American Military Cemetery, said MacKenzie Bitter, a rising-senior.
“All the veterans that have been there, honoring their fallen brothers, I think it’s an honor,” she said.
Rising junior Hannah Burroughs agreed. “It’s so much more than just a band trip,” Burroughs said. “This is more personal.”
At least 400 plates of barbecue were sold at the recent fundraiser, Commander Culp said.
“We’re here to support the community,” he said.
“Everyone in the Post has been very gracious,” Ford said. “It’s been a great partnership.”
MacKenzie’s mom, Ann, said she hopes the trip will begin to make history more real to the students and “give them a different perspective on life in general.”
“They read it in their history books each year,” Ann Bitter said. “I think they’re starting to get a sense of (veterans’) sacrifice.”
MacKenzie’s grandfather served in the Korean War and both of her great-grandfathers are World War II veterans, her mom said.
If it were not for the sacrifices of many in the armed forces, it would not be possible for the students to be taking this trip, Ann Bitter said.
“These students are learning life lessons,” she said.