Students at Van Zant Elementary School kicked off their Memorial Day weekend by learning that the true meaning of Memorial Day goes beyond any barbecue, day off or trip to The Shore.
Instead, students at Van Zant used their Friday morning to take part in a surprise “welcome home” ceremony for two members of the U.S. Army.
And it was during that ceremony that students also learned to use this upcoming Memorial Day to pay tribute to those who made the ultimate sacrifice and weren’t lucky enough to make it home.
Friday’s event was the latest in a long tradition for Operation Yellow Ribbon of South Jersey – the Marlton-based nonprofit that supports members of U.S. Military by sending care packages to those serving overseas and planning surprise “welcome home” events for those who have returned from duty.
Students, school staff and members of the community donned outfits of red white and blue while they stood cheering and waving American flags outside out the school as two members of the U.S. Army were escorted to Van Zant by the Evesham Township Police Department and the Warriors’ Watch Riders – a patriotic motorcycle group.
The two lucky recipients of this year’s “welcome home” ceremony were U.S. Army Specialist Jared Knouse and US Army Specialist Jeremy Hreben, who each thought they were simply visiting the school to talk to the students about their military service and the Memorial Day holiday.
The two also have familial connections to the school, as Knouse has a young son set to start kindergarten at the school next year and Hreben has a daughter is currently attending fifth grade as her final year at the school.
Knouse, who currently works at Joint Base Maguire Dix Lakehurst, has honors including the Army Commendation Medal, Army Good Conduct Medal, National Defense Service Medal, Global War on Terrorism Service Medal, and the Iraq Campaign Medal with Campaign Star.
He also grew up in Medford before moving to Maryland, North Carolina and Georgia – finally returning to New Jersey once more.
As for Hreben, who currently works as superintendent at the township’s Indian Spring Country Club, he served with the 101st Army Airborne Division and was trained as a combat engineer and a demolition and explosives expert.
In addition to their surprise welcome at the school, the two U.S. Army Specialists also received proclamations from New Jersey Eighth Legislative District Assemblyman Ryan Peters, Burlington County Freeholders Tom Pullion and Dan O’Connell and Evesham Township Mayor Jacyln Veasy, as well as a proclamation on behalf of U.S. Congressman Andy Kim.
Dave Silver, who serves as chair of Operation Yellow Ribbon of South Jersey, said those at the ceremony had the freedom to hold such events due to the service and sacrifices of service members such as Knouse and Hreben.
“Today we’re going to use our freedom to thank and welcome home two heroes and their families for their service, and this Monday [Memorial Day] we’re going to use the very freedoms given to us to honor and memorialize those who served their country and fell during their service,” Silver said.
As for Knouse and Hreben, each man said they were completely surprised by the event and thanked those in the community who made it possible.
Yet the two service members also pointed to the Memorial Day holiday as a time to remember those who didn’t return home from their service.
“Memorial Day is a memorial for everyone who fought and didn’t get to go home,” Knouse said. “It’s for paying your respects for everyone who wasn’t able to come home like we were.”
Hreben echoed those sentiments.
“It’s a time to remember and reflect on what all the past soldiers have done for us,” Hreben said. “That’s what it means to me.”