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Compared with the usual rafter-rattling decibel of pep assemblies at Will James Middle School, Monday's gathering of the student body was decidedly somber. The seventh- and eighth-graders gathered to recognize Veterans Day and remember those who served in the military.

"I would like them to have a better awareness of what those who went before us did for us to enjoy the freedoms we have today," said Marine 1st Sgt. Robert Roddy, one of the guest speakers.

Students sang patriotic songs and a student played taps in honor of fallen soldiers and veterans. Several dozen veterans, active-duty military and family members were guests of honor.

"They're doing a good job for us, and they protect us with their lives," said Dylan Cameron, 12.

The event was followed by a U.S. Army Black Hawk helicopter's landing in the school's athletic field. Students were allowed to tour the helicopter, and a long line of students - mostly boys - formed to sit in the cockpit.

Three years ago, teacher Hunter Jones organized the Veterans Day assembly, and it has since become a tradition. The idea evolved from a popular classroom project.

Since 2002, students in Jones' history classes have been writing letters and sending care packages to military personnel deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan. The students send about 25 letters a week and about 25 care packages every two weeks. Students raise money and collect donations to fill the boxes with goodies and supplies for the soldiers.

Jones always has a list of servicemen and women with ties to Billings.

Spouses, parents and grandparents of military personnel will call Jones and request that he have his students correspond with their loved ones.

Lately, most of the recipients of the letters and packages have been 50 U.S. Marine Corps Reservists from Montana who are stationed in Iraq.

Will James Middle School students have sent almost 4,000 letters and more than 1,500 packages.

Jones launched the letter-writing campaign after he met up with a former student whose husband was stationed in Afghanistan. Jones had his students write to him, and he's had a list of deployed servicemen and women ever since.

"Now with the Marines over there, it's even more," Jones said.

Contact Laura Tode at ltode@billingsgazette.com or 657-1392.

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