For Vietnam veteran Tim Bassett, Tri-Valley Middle School's Veterans Day program in November was what he called "a very life-changing experience."
"Most of us, when we were invited, just thought the junior high wanted to honor us," Bassett said. "Instead, they changed my life."
Describing himself as homeless and a drug addict, Bassett said the event in Downs on Nov. 9 turned his life around. The former Tremont resident is a member of the Psycho-Social Rehabilitation Program at the Veterans Administration Illiana Health Care System in Danville, but he said that when he and his fellow vets got off the bus to walk into the school and were greeted by hundreds of respectful youths, it made him think.
"The kids didn't stop clapping for us until we sat down." Bassett said of that day, noting he was also surprised by the two-time American Legion 21-gun salute presented by soldiers of all different branches of the service at the event.
"The kids that day were so respectful," he said. "They didn't care about our past. You could see it (the respect) in their eyes. It seemed to me they were attributing their freedoms to those who fought in the wars. We were presented a gift, and they constantly thanked us."
Bassett, a 62-year-old Navy communication technician radioman who served in Florida and even the Philippines from 1969 to 1972, said he had never been thanked for his service to his country like that before.
"We were like puppies," he said of the innocence of the day. "The kids didn't care. It was like there was no good people. There was no bad people. It was time for me to forgive myself of the bad things I had done and create a change of attitude."
Bassett said he realized after he returned from the ceremonies days later that it wasn't his "past sins that make you do the bad things. It's your attitude."
A former massage therapist as well as having a career in the heating/air conditioning and plumbing business, Bassett said he saw the eyes of those children as he went for his daily walk. He said he felt the youngsters were telling him that if he just respected himself, he would turn his life around.
"I still have a long way to go," said Bassett, noting it's a change in the right direction because of the students at Tri-Valley and what they did for him and his fellow veterans that day.
A total of about 65 veterans participated in the event that day in Tri-Valley, and while they made a "powerful statement" by gathering together, according to the middle school's Principal Doug Roberts, the students may have affected their lives even more.
The principal said the assembly was all about showing gratitude to the veterans for their service to our country.
"We were trying to seek some kind of a partnership with local veterans," Roberts said. "Tim's personal story is evidence of that day. It was not only a positive, life-changing event for the veterans, but for many of our students as well. That's why we wanted to do more."
Earlier this week, the students made another trip to Danville (in December the sixth-grade choir performed holiday music for the veterans).
Roberts said the school decided to bring the students back to Danville to "share a sense of our gratitude," after the veterans had come to Downs two months earlier.
He said the purpose of the trip was to help students "challenge our own character" and give them an opportunity to "grow and develop their own character" by making what he called a "natural connection" with the vets. Roberts said the Veterans Day event was "powerful for us, but we also found out it was powerful for you. We were honored to be part of that."
He said getting the students involved will hopefully lead them to become better community leaders.
Harold Fritz, a Medal of Honor recipient from Peoria, praised the students for their dedication to the vets.
"There's our future," he said after pointing out that the former soldiers knew the "importance of freedom" and that because of the sacrifices of American men and women in the military, our country has the freedom it relishes today. "You never ever want to lose that. It's a great country."