SYCAMORE – Army Sgt. Robert Martinez watched his daughter grow up in part through pictures sent to him while he was fighting in Iraq in 2003 and Afghanistan in 2006.
Martinez told a crowd of Sycamore High School students he joined the military to protect his family and others who could not protect their own. Despite extended absences from his family and other hardships throughout his time in the military, he continued to preservere in his duties.
"We are blessed to be here in this country," he said. "It allows us complete control over our lives. We can worship how we choose, vote for our leaders and educate everyone."
Martinez was one of several veterans who shared their stories with students at the school on Monday. School officials hosted several ceremonies and talks at the school to teach students why "freedom isn't free," and it was one of the many events planned this week in DeKalb County honoring veterans.
U.S. Rep. Adam Kinzinger, himself an Air Force veteran, attended a Veterans Day ceremony at Northern Illinois University, where he gave the keynote speech.
"We come out to honor a very special group of people that I call the real 1 percent in our country, which are those that really really step up to defend our country in tough times," Kinzinger said.
Veterans and those who continue to serve in the military are true heroes who make sacrifices to protect people's lives and freedoms, said Tim Carlson, Sycamore High School Principal. They are unlike the athletes and celebrities students see all the time, he said.
"They've delayed their education to serve," he said. "They spend long periods of time separated from their families … they spend time being in harm's way. Families do not know if the next phone call or knock on the door will be an indication of their loved one's demise."
Before an assembly where students and staff met with the veterans, they were invited to a ceremony outside the school where the flag was lowered to half-mast. Another ceremony was held where veterans and musicians led students throughout the school before stopping by the school's Freedom Isn't Free wall display for a moment of silence.
Pictured on the display were the veterans who attended Sycamore High School. Carlson said the newest addition to the display would be Milton "Pete" Knudson, a Sycamore High School graduate who enlisted in the military in 1941 and died during World War II.
Army Sgt. Candace Oliver said she remembered having the day off from school on Veterans Day. Like Martinez, she said when she fought in Afghanistan she had to spend time away from her family. She said her daughter was confused at the time why her mother couldn't be with her, but is learning about why soldiers like her must fight elsewhere. She said it's important for schools such as Sycamore's to support veterans by recognizing Veterans Day.
"It does make you a better person," she said.
Senior student Alex Riley said it was good for the school to highlight the hardships of veterans.
"I just think it's really cool our school takes the time to honor the people who took they risk they made to preserve our way of life," he said.