NJ students honor veterans with Proud to Be an American Day

A few weeks ago, some letters arrived in the FOX 5 NY newsroom and we could tell right away these were no ordinary messages.

Here's an excerpt of one of them: "To whom it may concern, Hello, I am a student at Somerset Tech in Bridgewater, New Jersey. I would like to inform you that we are hosting our 15th annual Proud to Be an American Day."

This is a story about much more than a special event at a high school in New Jersey. This is a story about sacrifice.

Here's another excerpt from a letter by another student at Somerset Vocational and Technical High School: "My class is holding an event to honor a fallen soldier Jesse Melton III. USMC Captain Jesse Melton was killed in action recently in Afghanistan."

The letters were part of a team effort from students here. It included sisters Sydney and Riley Sibilia on fundraising duty. Olivia Jaime and Amy Galdamez were part of the graphic design team. Jiya Mody and Grace Chen, both juniors, were on the letter-writing team and said they sent out more than 100. 

"It seemed really, like interesting, and that we'd be able to give back to our community was the big part of it," Mody said.

Social studies teacher Ed Graf, a U.S. Army veteran, said this was an opportunity for the school to give back in a unique way.

"The program was really designed to show the students about the sacrifice from Memorial Day, we have some Gold Star families in the area, unfortunately, lost her son or daughter in combat," Graf said. "The students really were not aware of this type of sacrifice and what it really means for our nation so we really bring these families together and honor them."

Somerset Vocational and Technical High School has held the annual Proud to Be an American Day for the last 15 years. This year, it will honor local ROTC member Anthony Steitz, who died recently in a car accident, and Marine Captain Jesse Helton, who died serving in Afghanistan.

Over the years, it's all for a good cause. Graf and his students have raised more than $150,000.

On this day, a nearby field is transformed by tanks, helicopters, a canon, and families of the fallen. A group called the Travis Manion Foundation helped put the school in touch with Captain Melton's family.

"Everyone always says how much he cared about people how much he touched others people's lives," Graf said. "And he always wanted to serve our country and our students are going to learn all about him."