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Controversial Lesson Plan Dominates Discussion
Dozens of Saratoga County residents spoke out at Ballston Spa’s Board of Education meeting Wednesday against a controversial online lesson plan that has been linked to the Ballston Spa school district.
The lesson plan, titled “Dying to be a Martyr,” allegedly takes what opponents feel is a sympathetic view towards radical suicide bombers.
“These biased global history lessons are not educational. Our local schools, public schools, are intentionally indoctrinating our youth,” said Renee Murtens of Ballston Spa. “Being sympathetic to any terrorist group, any religion...does not constitute education, nor does it belong in our high schools.”
Word of the plan reached Saratoga County when an article on conservative news site theBlaze.com revealed a Ballston Spa history teacher to be its author. However, school officials say the plan has never been taught.
“It’s about fourteen years old,” Ballston Spa Superintendent Joe Dragone said. “It has never been taught. And we stand by that.”
The plan was created over ten years ago for PBS’s LearningMedia program, which provides over 100,000 free educational resources for teachers and students, and it is still available on the website. It had been relatively unknown until it was dredged up in April.
The lesson plan uses multimedia pieces to “examine the roots of the conflict in the Middle East,” including interviews with individuals linked to suicide bombings.
Many of the meeting’s speakers commented on the apparent lack balance in the history curriculum. Kate Thimineur of Ballston Spa first grew concerned when she flipped through her daughter’s ninth-grade history textbook two years ago.
“I looked into her history book and I noticed that there were 15 pages on Islam and five pages on Christianity and Judaism,” she said. “I asked if that was going to be corrected within the classroom. Long story short, it wasn’t.”
Thimineur requested to observe a class’s lesson on the creation of the state of Israel, but she said she was referred to a different class.
“As I understand it, Mrs. Thimineur has been in the classroom a number of times,” Board of Education President Kevin Schaefer said. “We try not to let parents into the classroom this late in the year when the kids are prepping for regents and end of the year finals.”
Thimineur has expressed her concerns to the board multiple times, she said. The board responded in a letter, writing that though she could discuss other issues, further public comment on the topic would be limited to avoid “rehashing the same issue.”
Other speakers shifted focus to Christianity. Schenectady resident Earl Wallace is a pastor at Liberty Christian Fellowship Church and a former teacher at Saratoga Springs high school. Though the lesson is not taught, Wallace suggested a solution for the speakers’ complaints.
“I teach a course called the Biblical Basis of the Bill of Rights,” Wallace said. “I have programs designed to teach children that which we have suppressed in our society. Our society has become more brutal, more hateful.”
The board plans to respond formally to the torrent of comments. Though they often respond only to specific questions, the board feels reciprocal action is appropriate to resolve some of the confusion around this particular issue.
“The reality is it’s never been taught,” Dragone said. “There’s nothing of that nature going on.”
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Strain Between Saratoga Schools and Parents Continues
SARATOGA SPRINGS – There have been new developments in the ongoing strain between the Saratoga Springs High School administration and local parents since the May 23rd edition of Saratoga TODAY, in which we covered the story of a local group of conservative women, the “Saratoga Conservative Chicks,” who took matters into their own hands when confronted with what they saw as severe bias in the Saratoga school system.
When a teacher gave an assignment comparing President Trump to both Hitler and Mussolini, matters rose quickly to the national spotlight. This led to two of the women, Marnie Messet and Julie Tellstone, appearing on “Fox and Friends.”
Subsequently, the Saratoga Springs City School District released an official statement, giving an account of the assignment, and an explanation, claiming that it did not violate any school policies. This provided no resolution to the parents involved, as the statement’s description of the homework assignment seemed to be at odds with the assignment itself.
As a result, the women involved met with school officials to discuss these and other matters. The first was their disappointment with the inaccuracy of the school's public statement regarding the assignment in question when compared to the assignment itself. The second was the unprofessional behavior of the teacher who gave the assignment, and allegedly used the classroom as a platform to refer to the parents who appeared on Fox News as “fascists,” even with the 10th grade child of one of those women present. Finally, while the school had released an official statement, the parents had never been responded to personally by the school, despite their attempts to reach out to the district about the high profile nature of the issue.
The aforementioned meeting was concluded with the school official’s assurances that the controversial assignment would not be included in next year’s curriculum, and that the instructor guidelines would be updated to prevent similar events from occurring in the future. When reached out to, a representative of the Saratoga school system confirmed that the assignment would see no future use. The representative also stated that the district's curriculum council had developed a guidance document for teaching controversial topics. However, nothing was mentioned of the teacher who had given the assignment and made accusations against the parents.
Off to D.C.: Local Student to Work with U.S. Senate
SCHUYLERVILLE – One local student will soon be off to D.C. for the opportunity of her high school career.
Freya Birkas-Dent, a junior at Schuylerville High School, will begin a three-week position in the competitive and prestigious United States Senate Page program on June 11, which will run until June 30. Birkas-Dent will be sponsored by N.Y. Senator Chuck Schumer, and was one of only 30 students from across the country selected for the program.
Her responsibilities during these three weeks will include administrative tasks, such as filing paperwork and delivering documents and mail between offices. The program will also involve time in the Senate Chamber, during which pages will be responsible for arranging papers at each seat and holding doors, according to Birkas-Dent. She will also be attending page school, to “l earn about parliamentary procedure and the legislative process,” according to the Schuylerville schools website.
Birkas-Dent first became aware of the Senate page position while reading a book written by former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, in which he references pages as the people who perform various administrative tasks for the Senate. This interested her, and she began researching the position by visiting the websites of some of her Senators.
She first got in touch with the offices of N.Y. Senators Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, inquiring about page positions for the spring or fall, as she initially wanted to apply for one that would happen during the school year. Finding that neither Senator had available positions for those sessions, she applied to a number of Senators from different states, including Susan Collins of Maine and Claire McCaskill of Mo. This too failed to yield fruitful results, as she said that Senators prefer to sponsor pages from their own constituencies. Finally, Senator Schumer came through with a page position for the summer, which she accepted.
“I’m really interested in going into international relations or into government,” Birkas-Dent said about what inspired her to pursue a position like this. “We learn about this kind of stuff in the classroom, but you really don’t have a tangible experience with it. It’s kind of shrouded in secrecy what actually goes on there, so I don’t feel like I have a good understanding of exactly how it runs on a day-to-day basis.”
Birkas-Dent believes this position will give her the sort of understanding of the legislative process necessary for her to decide if it is a career path that she would like to follow. Some of the careers she has considered for herself include elected official, diplomat, or possibly working with a non-profit doing international relations work. Whatever career she ends up pursuing, she knows that she would like to go into the Peace Corps after college.
“I think the U.N. [United Nations] would be really interesting to be in,” Birkas-Dent said. “But I think it’s hard to get into as an American. So I’ve kind of branched out.”
Back at home, Birkas-Dent is involved with a number of groups and programs focused on environmental preservation. She is the president of the high school’s Environmental Club, and works with the Hudson River Community Advisory Group, which works on various things including dredging and floodplain sampling. She is also the captain of her school’s Climate Leadership Team, and with that group recently attended the Adirondack Youth Climate Summit. While environmental issues are important to her, she said that were she to get involved with politics in the future, they would likely be a side issue for her and not a core part of her hypothetical platform, given the divisive conversation surrounding such issues.
“I’m very excited,” Birkas-Dent said about beginning her new position. “I’m excited to meet people from all over the country. It’s a little bit nerve-wracking cause we don’t know yet what we’ll be doing exactly, but I think it’ll be a good experience and I’m really looking forward to it.”
Saratoga Tennis Clinches First Ever Doubles Title
SARATOGA SPRINGS – Blue Streak history was made at the recent Section II boys tennis tournament.
Entering the competition on May 24 as the No. 1 seeded doubles team, senior David Romano and eighth-grader Nick Grosso went all the way, finally besting the team of Govind Chari and Shamanth Murundi of Bethlehem to become the Section II doubles champions. Capping off an exceptional 18-0 season for the Saratoga Tennis program, Romano and Grosso helped bring home the program’s first ever doubles title. This comes off of the program taking its first-ever sectional team title in 2016. From this win, they will move on to compete in the State-level competition at Flushing Meadows, the same site as the US Open.
Both Romano and Grosso have been in the Saratoga Tennis program since their seventh grade years. This was their first year working together as a doubles team. As a senior and an eighth grader, they are working with an age-disparity that they say is very much not common in varsity tennis.
“I’ve never seen it, in my six years,” Romano said about the age gap. “It works out, cause we both know and respect each other’s games a lot, and he’s one of the hardest workers that I’ve known, and I think together we make a great team.”
“Seeing David out on the court when I was little, you know, it just kept me moving,” Grosso said. “Kept me going, kept me trying every day to be a player like him some day. I think that’s what kept me going, and that’s where I’m at right now.”
Coach Tim O’Brien singled-out the team’s ability to communicate on the court as one of the reasons that they have been so successful. Romano attributes this to their knowledge of each other’s styles, including their strengths and weaknesses on the court, allowing them to cover for each other fairly quickly.
“There have been plenty of times when I shouted for help and he was right there,” Romano said.
Romano will be attending Brown University in the fall after graduating. While there is a very strong tennis team at Brown, Romano was hesitant to say that he would be up to the task of making the team. He does, however, intend to offer his services to help the team in whatever way he is able. Grosso, meanwhile, will be moving up from middle school to high school in the fall, and is not feeling too much pressure about it. Given his experience with high schoolers during his two seasons on the tennis team, he feels confident in his ability to make the transition smoothly. If anything, he expects the change to do wonders for his game.
Elsewhere at the Section II championships, singles players Seungmin Kim and Max Lee made it to the quarterfinals.
“The key to it I think has just been having a foundation of great kids and leaders, on the court and off the court,” O’Brien said about what has made this season’s team so dominant. “It begins with them.”
Photos by Photoandgraphic.com.
R U Tuff eNuff? These BOCES Students Are
SARATOGA SPRINGS – This Saturday, June 3, will bring the sixth annual TUFF eNUFF obstacle course challenge to Saratoga Springs, providing local families and fitness enthusiasts with a day of high-energy, muddy fun on the reconstituted fields near the F. Donald Myers Education Center. Prior to the big day, the course itself has to be planned and constructed, and for the last six years these tasks have fallen into the hands of local BOCES students who learn their crafts at the Henning Road campus.
Each September, The Prevention Council gets in touch with Greg Hammond and Ken Brooks, instructors at the Henning Road BOCES in the Heavy Equipment Program, to work out a date for the following year’s TUFF eNUFF challenge. From there, according to Hammond, the instructors and their students will begin the process of putting together the course about three weeks in advance, beginning first with the planning stages. The actual construction portion of the build takes up the last week or so before the event takes place. Every BOCES student in the Heavy Equipment program works on the project, which Hammond estimates to be around 80 students in a given year.
According to some of the students who have worked on this year’s course, the equipment used to prepare the TUFF eNUFF course are the typical vehicles that one would expect on a construction site: excavators, backhoes, bulldozers, wheel loaders, and more.
“A little bit of everything,” Hammond said.
This equipment is used to create the primary facets of the TUFF eNUFF course, including trenches to be filled with muddy water, and giant mounds of dirt to be scaled by runners. After these elements are in place, Hammond says that a number of other elements are brought in to spice things up, including logs, tires, ropes, and a number of other things to make the course more challenging.
Aaron Lohaus, a student in the Heavy Equipment program, also noted the importance of safety in designing and constructing the course. He said that different considerations have to be made for the children’s course versus the normal course, including the depth of the trenches, to avoid potential drowning hazards for the smaller competitors. Furthermore, safety checks for the whole project are needed to ensure that nothing is left in place that might be too sharp or that might trip up participants in a bad way.
All the tasks that go into creating these courses tie back into the lessons the students learn in the Heavy Equipment program. Unsurprisingly, proper operation techniques are an important part of the program, but the students also learn how perform maintenance on the various vehicles and pieces of equipment they work with. Additionally, as Lohaus highlighted, safety is a major part of what they learn about, especially when it comes to being aware of their fellow workers on the project site.
In recent years, the Prevention Council has also brought in students from other BOCES programs to improve the overall TUFF eNUFF experience. This includes students from the culinary program, who help put together a barbeque for the event, as well as student from the criminal justice program, who help to police the course and direct the flow of participants on the course.
The Sixth Annual TUFF eNUFF challenge will take place at the Henning Road BOCES on June 3. The Kids 1 Mile Run will begin at 8:30 a.m., followed by the Teens/Adults 5K at 9:15 a.m. Anyone interested can register at www.finishright.com, and more information can be found by calling 518-581-1230.
Feds Sweep Through Saratoga Springs, Arrest 16
SARATOGA SPRINGS – Federal Agents conducted an operation Tuesday morning in Saratoga Springs, arresting 16 “unlawfully present foreign nationals,” according to an email statement issued by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security Immigration and Customs Enforcement, in response to an inquiry seeking information regarding Tuesday’s events.
Special agents and officers with ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations and Enforcement and Removal Operations conducted the operation following an ongoing investigation, according to the organization.
The men - one Guatemalan national and 15 Mexican nationals - are between the ages of 19 and 49 and currently face administrative immigration violations.
Jeff Many looked out his Division Street office window Tuesday morning and watched the activity going on in the parking lot below. As a long white van sat in the lot, a variety of cars and SUV’s periodically pulled next to it, transferring men in handcuffs from the smaller vehicles into the van, he said.
“I noticed the white van in the lot at around 7:30 in the morning. A female driver stayed behind with the van while the cars and SUV’s would leave then come back around every 20 minutes or so,” Many said. “This went on until 10 or 11.”
City police were informed of the arrival of federal agents, but played no role in the event, said Saratoga Springs Police Lt. Bob Jillson. “We were made aware of it. They let us know they were in town, but we weren’t a part of it. No other agencies were involved as far as I know.”
Nine of the men are facing potential federal felony charges for re-entry after deportation or visa fraud and are currently being held at the Albany County Correctional Facility.
According to the federal agency, the investigation is ongoing and no further information will be released at this time.
Late Thursday, city Mayor Joanne Yepsen released the following statement regarding the event:
I have spoken to top level Homeland Security officials to obtain as much information as permitted. ICE (U.S. Department of Homeland Security Immigration and Customs Enforcements) is carrying out the law and national agenda through ongoing investigations and targeted arrests. I absolutely respect the federal agency's authority to keep our cities and nation safe. My concern, as the Mayor of Saratoga Springs, is that we are a community that relies significantly on the hospitality and racing industry workforce. The well-timed, newly formed City Human Rights Task Force will be working diligently to conduct education, information and awareness raising activities and presentations, including the immigration process and why it's so difficult.
Fastest in the Nation
SARATOGA SPRINGS – There might not be any records left to break in the near future if Kelsey Chmiel continues at her current pace.
Competing in the 77th Annual William F. Eddy Meet at Schenectady High School on May 20 alongside 11 other Saratoga athletes, Chmiel, a sophomore, competed in the 3,000-meter race event, finishing with a dominant 9 minutes and 18.09 seconds, putting up the best time in the country for the spring 2017 season so far as well as setting the sophomore girls national record in the event. As one might expect, a performance that put national records to shame also left her competition on the day in the dust, as her closest competitor, Burnt Hills senior Eva Scott, finished the race close to a minute and a whole lap behind her at 10 minutes and 9.66 seconds. This was Chmiel’s third year competing at the Eddy Meet.
This performance continues Chmiel’s recent streak of standout performances and broken records. Back in March, at the 2017 New Balance Nationals Indoor national-level track & field event, Chmiel competed in the 2-mile event and ended up with a time of 10 minutes and 12.94 seconds, besting the state record and narrowly edging out the national record as well. Just a little before that, at the NYSPHSAA State Championships, Chmiel set the previous record in the 3,000-meter event for sophomores. At least year’s Eddy Meet, she set the all-time record for the 1,500-meter event in Section II with a time of 4 minutes 23.81 seconds, and also put up a time of 9 minutes and 48.25 seconds in the 3,000-meter race, a time she would best by over 30 seconds just one year later.
“It makes me excited,” Chmiel said about her collection of record-breaking runs. “But I think it also makes me work harder... I’m just gonna keep working at practice and hopefully lower my times.”
“She’s very competitive, she’s very analytical,” assistant coach Linda Kranick said of Chmiel’s consistently excellent performance. “I think this is the fourth national sophomore record she’s broken this school year... Kelsey has high aspirations, and works very hard.”
Kranick, who has been coaching track & field for 37 years and has coached with husband Art Kranick at Saratoga Springs High School since 1985, reckons that Chmiel is one of the best runners she has worked with in her career, if not the best, given her consistent record-breaking performances. Some of this she attributes to the advances in coaching techniques over the years that have allowed them to train faster and faster athletes, but it mostly comes down to Chmiel’s hard work and innate talents.
“Kelsey is very humble, very modest,” Kranick said. “And she understands that she has even farther to go.”
Elsewhere at the meet, senior Mimi Liebers bested the competition to finish first in the 100-meter hurdles event. Liebers will be competing in track and field at the College of the Holy Cross in the fall.
Golf Classic a Personal Endeavor for Organizers
SARATOGA SPRINGS – The upcoming Golf Classic and Par-Tee fundraiser event on June 5 is more than just a good deed for a good cause for some of those involved with it. For them, it is also a deeply personal endeavor.
Gathered in the back of a local coffee shop for their usual meeting, several women involved in organizing the upcoming golf fundraiser talked about how the event’s mission to help find a cure for Type-1 diabetes has touched their lives, whether it be that they have lived with the disease themselves, have children with it, or both. Funds raised from the event will go to the Juvenile Diabetes Research Fund, which helps to fund research into the treatment of Type-1 diabetes.
Type-1 diabetes is caused by an autoimmune disorder that hinders the production of insulin in the body. Its causes are unknown, although a family history of the disease is known to increase one’s risk of developing it. It is important to note its differences from Type-2 diabetes, a metabolic disorder caused by poor diet and lack of exercise. Due to the fact that Type-2 accounts for around 90-percent of diabetes cases, public perception can often be that it is the only form of the disease, which is a source of great frustration for those who develop Type-1 through no fault of their dietary or lifestyle choices.
For Joyce Ure, Denise Nicastro, and Karen Larkin, the attachment is through their children, who all live with the disease. When Ure’s son began exhibiting symptoms consistent with Type-1 when he was eight, she thought it could not be true due the lack of history with the disease, but after he was taken to Albany Medical and found to have a blood sugar of 680, the diagnosis was clear. For Ure, the hope for the event is that it will also help spread awareness for the symptoms of the disease. Nicastro’s daughter was diagnosed early in life and is now a student in college. With her daughter so far away most times of the year, it leaves her with a lot of anxiety.
Larkin’s son was diagnosed when he was six, and has lived with the disease for the last four years. Over those years, she has noticed definite improvements in the technology for treating and monitoring diabetic symptoms, a sentiment supported by everyone at the table. A few of them mentioned apps on their phones and watches that allow them to monitor their children’s blood sugar levels at all times anywhere. These technologies were not around only a few years ago, they said, and developments like these show the benefits of raising money for organizations like the JDRF.
For Ellen Brodie, Type-1 is just about her entire life, as both she and her two children are living with the disease.
“My personal attachment is my life, and its my kids’ lives,” Brodie said. “That’s about as personal as it gets.”
The Golf Classic and Par-Tee will be held at Saratoga National Golf Club on June 5, starting at 11:30 a.m. For the first time this year, the Golf Classic and Par-Tee events will be combined into one event, as opposed to years prior when they were separate affairs. The organizers estimated that the two separate events in the past have raised over $200,000 a year for the JDRF. More information about the event can be found online at www.jdrf.org/neny/events/hoffman-car-wash-hoffman-jiffy-lube-golf-classic-and-par-tee/#event-details.
Scotties Stampede a Success Once Again
BALLSTON SPA – The second annual Scotties Stampede was another success for the Ballston Spa Central School District. Held on May 20, the 5K race and fundraiser brought in over 200 participants. While an exact figure is not yet available, race director Madeleine Petraglia estimates that several thousand dollars were raised at the event.
Proceeds from the race will go to support the Ballston Spa Partnership for Innovation in Education Fund, a part of the larger Community Foundation for a Greater Capital Region. Some of the programs that the fund supports include Sponsor-A-Scholar, the robotics club, “Performing & Fine Arts” programs, STEM enrichment initiatives, and the Clean Technologies & Sustainable Industries Early College High School. Many of these programs are key reasons why Ballston Spa Central School District has recently been highlighted as featuring one of the best high schools in the nation, being ranked 1,374 out of 22,000 schools by the US News & World Report’s Best High Schools list.
This year’s top three male finishers were Joey Vesic, 16, of Malta – who finished first overall across the entire race – Tyson Evensen, 35, of Saratoga Springs, and Vincent Mascardi III, 15, of Malta. The top three female finishers were Gabby Schreffer, 23, of Betnal, Dana Wiwczar, 41, of Malta, and Katherine Quinn, 20, of Niskayuna. Full race results can be found online at www.albanyrunningexchange.org.
Additionally at the event, the Ballston Spa Teachers Association distributed over 1,200 free books to attendees through their Book Bonanza program. This brings the total number of books the group has distributed over the course of 2017 to over 9,500.
The third annual Scotties Stampede is tentatively scheduled for May 19, 2018.
All photos by www.photoandgraphic.com.
Putting a Face to History: Korean War Veterans Speak to Saratoga Students
SARATOGA SPRINGS – History came alive recently for students at Saratoga Springs High School (SSHS).
In the intimate setting of the SSHS teaching auditorium, a little over three classes worth of local students gathered for an assembly on May 24 where seven members of the Adirondack Chapter of the Korean War Veterans Association came to share stories from their times serving their country. In attendance to share their stories were Bruce Blackie, Roger Calkins, Eugene Slavin, Paul O’Keefe, Edward Bushey, William Reid, and Robert Garland. After each speaker rose to give the audience a salute, Blackie spoke first, introducing the group’s intention to shed a light on what many have termed the “Forgotten War.”
“What we wanna do is put a personal face on what you read in the history books,” Blackie said. He continued, noting the historically significant facets of the Korean War: it was the first war in American history with no formal congressional declaration to mark the country’s entrance into it, and it ended not with a victory on either side, but with a ceasefire that holds to this day.
Calkins spoke next, first noting how each speaker had lived through WWII, which ended just five years before the start of the Korean War, and how at the time the feeling of peace was such that few thought that it would ever end, let alone so soon after. He then took students through the shape of the lands controlled by the North and the South over the course of three years, starting with the divisions of the country made by the United States and the Soviet Union after WWII, see-sawing back and forth from Northern to Southern control, before finally ending with the current dividing line at the 38th Parallel, currently known as the Korean Demilitarized Zone.
“It all happened very fast,” Calkins said.
O’Keefe spoke next, bringing a much more personal angle to his talk, telling the story of how he came to be involved in the war, and how things went for himself and his friends afterwards. O’Keefe graduated from Mechanicville High School only four days before the war began. Alongside himself, a good friend of his from school, Raymond Waldron, was also drafted, and he told the audience to remember that name, as he would be coming back to it. Before basic training, O’Keefe had never held any sort of weapon before.
“Not even a BB gun,” O’Keefe said.
Speaking of his time on the battlefield, he noted how the life of a soldier felt like being an animal.
“Your home is now a hole in the ground,” he said, telling the students about foxholes.
Coming back to his friend Waldron, O’Keefe told the story of how surprised he was to see a friend from home in the army with himself. Later on, he told students about how Waldron went on to attend Ithaca College, and eventually became a coach and respected athletic director at SSHS, despite at one time being among their bitter rivals on the sports team in Mechanicville. Waldron’s esteem within the community was so great that a street was named after him, Coach Waldron Way, just off of Washington Street in Saratoga Springs.
O’Keefe concluded his portion by highlighting the some of the graduating Blue Streaks who would be going on to attend military academies in the fall, including student athletes Hunter Choy and Will Navin, who were in attendance.
After each speaker had told their stories, they opened up the floor for student questions. Choy and Navin each came with the kinds of specific questions befitting soon-to-be members of the Armed Forces. Choy asked about the tactics employed by the forces they interacted with in Korea, to which many of the men recalled the overwhelming numbers mobilized by the Chinese, who fought on the side of North Korea alongside the Soviet Union. Navin wanted to know about the public’s perceptions of the war at the time, which according to the men was something like ignorance, as many people seemed unaware of the war. Upon returning home from combat, a few speakers recalled how many people at home were not aware that they had been gone for so long on account of the war.
Along with sharing stories from their times in the service, the speakers also stressed how important it is to honor those servicemen and women who were not lucky enough to come back, an appropriate message so close to Memorial Day.
“It is a day to remember those who never got to take their uniforms off,” O’Keefe said about the upcoming day of remembrance.
All photos by www.photoandgraphic.com.