A few minutes after a short assembly at Will James Middle School wrapped up, social studies teacher Hunter Jones was still a little flabbergasted.
"I'm overwhelmed by it," he said. "I didn't see that coming."
At the assembly, Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 1634 surprised him by naming him its Billings teacher of the year for 2012, thanks in large part to his years-long efforts to support active-duty and veteran military members.
The entire student body and staff attended the assembly, where VFW member Gene McDonald presented Jones with the award.
"We appreciate your students doing the things they do for the troops and for the veterans," McDonald said.
Jones said that his efforts to support the military began in 2002 after he learned that the husband of one his former students had been deployed to Afghanistan.
He decided to get his students on board to begin writing letters and sending care packages and, as word spread, the efforts grew.
"More and more people started to come to me with addresses of their family members," Jones said.
Since then, Jones and his students, through the after-school Soldier Support Club, have sent about 5,000 boxes of goodies and about 10,000 letters to members of the military. He's also brought in military members to speak and even arranged to have a Black Hawk helicopter land there, as well as helped to organize Veterans Day ceremonies involving the entire school.
Although he was out of town for this year's ceremony — held on Nov. 9 — Jones was able to listen to it on AM radio while driving and said he's impressed with the way the entire school conducted itself.
"I can't tell you how proud I am of all you kids and the staff here," Jones said.
Principal Lance Orner said that Jones' efforts have provided a nice boost to the school and taught valuable lessons to the students over the years.
"We get people from overseas that come home and talk to the classes about how much it means," he said. "Just last week, a lady called in from Helena and said that her husband received one of the boxes and how much it meant to him. It's a very, very well deserved honor."
With the award, Jones is eligible to be named the VFW's Montana and national teacher of the year.
"I see no reason why you shouldn't be named national (teacher of the year)," McDonald said during the presentation. "You are a very special person."
The ceremony began with the school band playing the national anthem, followed by the entire student body reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, and ended with the entire gym giving Jones a standing ovation.
While he didn't serve in the military, Jones said his family has a long history of serving in foreign wars, something to which many of the kids in the gym on Thursday can relate.
"Almost everyone in the school system know some one who's been deployed or served," he said. "These programs also help teach them how to contribute to our country because giving is just a blessing for itself."