Four Weehawken students won awards in two essay contests sponsored by the Veterans of Foreign Wars recently. Three students were honored for essays in the annual “Voice of Democracy” high school contest, and one student was honored for her entry into the “Patriot’s Pen” contest for those in grades six through eight.
The essays that win locally will then be judged on a district, state, and finally, national level, which may ultimately culminate in sizeable scholarships and a trip to Washington, D.C.
Senior Kari Vetter won first place and $150 on the Weehawken post level, and has been invited to compete on the district level next month at a dinner given by the VFW in Somerset, N.J. Senior Nicole Bautista won second place and $100, while Senior Valerie Varghese came in third and won $50. All three had to write about the topic, “Is there pride in serving in the military?”
Eighth-grader Bonnie Callahan took first place on the middle school post level in response to the question, “Are you proud of your country?”
The VFW has held the “Voice of Democracy” essay contest as their premiere scholarship program since 1947. They report that over 50,000 high school students compete each year for over $2.3 million in scholarship money and incentives.
The “Patriot’s Pen” contest has run annually for around 16 years for middle-schoolers and receives around 112,000 entries each year. They award winners savings bonds that total around $1.2 million.
“Most people don’t realize that soldiers have a really tough time when they come back.” –Nicole Bautista
Every year brings a different theme. Students are judged on originality, knowledge of content, and clarity of ideas. High-schoolers (who are also required to submit their essays in audible as well as written form) are also judged on delivery.
Voices of a future generation
“I like to write, so I decided to go for it,” said Bonnie, who received support from her English and reading teacher Linda Shertel to enter the “Patriotic Pen” contest. To answer the essay question of whether she was proud of her country, she chose to discuss the diversity of her neighborhood and the way she has witnessed individual interactions as a reflection of the nation as a whole.
“I like to see when people admit to their mistakes and offer to help each other,” she said. “I am proud when our country does the same.”
High school English teacher Kate Kitzie, with the encouragement of Principal Peter Olivieri, required that all of her students enter the contest. Three of them took first, second, and third place.
Nicole felt that the topic of pride in the military hit close to home twofold when she wrote her essay. She moved to the States from the Dominican Republic when she was 11, and said she has a unique appreciation for the freedoms Americans enjoy that are safeguarded by the military. In her essay, she asked, “Who wouldn’t be proud to live in a country where, unlike many other countries, corruption doesn’t rule, citizens have rights, and national security, including the military, ensures safety?”
Perhaps in testament to her thankfulness for American’s right to freedom of speech, Nicole also chose to address the flipside of military service: the difficulties soldiers face upon returning home from service. The firsthand experience of her 24-year-old friend and soldier Kevin Rodriguez compelled her to do so. “Most people don’t realize that soldiers have a really tough time when they come back,” Nicole said. “They need jobs, which are hard to get because of the economy. They need medical care, and they have to catch up with what they left behind, even after all the trauma they went through.”
Nicole believes there is definitely pride for those who serve, but “We have to honor and take better care of them when they come home and understand that serving their country is a sacrifice.”
Kari doesn’t personally know anyone who has served in the military, but she does have veterans in her family. “We take a lot of things for granted living in the United States,” she said, “and a lot of people don’t realize how lucky we are while people are far away fighting for us.”
In her essay, Kari stated, “There is great pride in the sacrifices service men and women make to protect us; we, who sit home safe and sound watching television or reading a novel. We, who are encouraged to speak our minds and pursue whatever dreams and goals we may have. And we, who have the freedom to pilot our own lives and control our own destinies.”
For more information on the Veterans of Foreign Wars or either essay contest, visit www.vfw.org.
Gennarose Pope may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org