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Holland Christian Middle School PE teacher Joel Leegwater joined the Marine Corp shortly after graduating from HCHS, and served as a combat engineer in Iraq building bridges, etc. in Operation Iraqi Freedom. Joel was asked to speak at our 2023 Veterans Assembly in November. At our request, he was willing to share his speech with our readers. Our HCLive broadcasting crew recorded the assembly and you can also watch Joel present his speech.

Sounds of War

They often say that our five senses can stir up old memories and feelings, can take us back to places in our mind. The smell of fresh baked pie can put you right back in your grandma’s kitchen and the joy you had spending time with her. The smell of fresh cut grass in the fall, brings you back to the fun you had on the soccer field.

For me, there are certain sounds that bring me right back to Iraq and stir up a lot of different emotions.

Those nights in the winter when the snow muffles the sounds and it is perfectly quiet. That drops me right back in the middle of the desert in Kuwait and that uneasiness of waiting for the war to start and to cross the border into Iraq.

Fourth of July sometimes brings up a cringe or two when I am not expecting a firework to go off. That horrible anxiety builds up like so many times when the sounds of explosions were happening all around.

The distant sound of a plane taking off makes me pause, and recall the fear I felt while sitting in that trench with all of my buddies and hearing the first rocket of the war being launched over our heads, and the realization that the war was starting followed by dozens. Then the panic as someone yells out “Gas! Gas! Gas!”

Why do I bring this up? For the most part these are things that I keep to myself. But I want you to think about this today: All of these veterans and families who lost a loved one sitting here, live with similar experiences or the unexpected feelings imprinted on them. The freedom that we enjoy everyday was and is not free. The constant, unseen burden that is embedded in each veteran is a large price.


How often would you say that you think that going to school, more specifically going to a Christian school, is a freedom? I think that if someone would have asked me that question when I was sitting in those bleachers my answer would have been never. I’m guessing that is probably pretty true for most of you.

The luxury of choosing a school to attend is one not so freely available in other places around the world, much less a religious school.

We are able to sit here today because of veterans and the freedoms they fought for. These include: Religion, to worship without persecution; a fair trial; marriage; clothes you wear; equality; education; freedom to access information without government interference; freedom to NOT enlist in the military; to vote, to have a voice.

When I sat there, like you all, I never really thought what my freedom to go to Holland Christian would really mean as my life played out.

I loved high school at Holland Christian, but the impact of HC didn’t show up until later.

“All the seeds that my teachers were planting, all the words of wisdom and encouragement, all the countless hours they spent planning for me, that I never really appreciated, have blessed my life in so many ways.

Because of my HC roots, when I was deployed to Iraq, I was able to serve as my company’s Lay Leader. We didn’t have a chaplain with us, so I was asked to help lead Sunday services, pray before we left on missions and support wherever needed.

I am by no means a pastor or Bible teacher, but all those “little seeds” that HC had planted came out and I was able to pass that along:

Seeds from Mrs. O’Brien’s Biology class, showing us how amazing our bodies are and the gift the Lord gave us.

Seeds from Mr. Baker’s PE class that taught us about being Christian teammates and what that looked like.

Seeds from Mr. Lemmen who showed us that math is more than just the numbers.

Seeds from Mr. Walcott and all the Bible memory work, which I didn’t appreciate at the time, but was so beneficial later in life as those verses would come back to me and I was able to use them to bless those around me and to bless myself.

I was able to do this because of the freedom to go to a Christian school earned by the veterans who went before me. Now the Lord was giving me the opportunity to use the seeds I was given. Now I was able to fight to secure those freedoms for the next generation.

Why did you do it?

The thing about Veterans Day is that most veterans are NOT looking for a thank you. I have talked with very few veterans—actually I have never talked to a veteran who has said they did it for the medals or the honors.

They most certainly didn’t do it for the free meal at Applebees.

Some of those things may have been a result of serving in a war, but never the reason why.

So why? Why volunteer? I know not all veterans have had the ability to choose service because of draft, but why?

Many veterans simply say they were called to, something inside of them nudged them in the direction to serve, to try and do the right thing, to give something back for everything they were given. To be the light in the midst of darkness.

That’s often the simplified version of Why. The reality is their Why is YOU. The moms and dads, the brother or sister.

You are the motivation. You are the reason. You are what makes it all worth it.

Knowing that what we do or what we did was to help make sure that you could have choices, that you could have freedom, that you could worship freely without persecution, that you could choose a path for your life that you want to follow.

Yes, that comes with great cost, often life altering costs, but those costs are worth the outcomes.

One of my favorite times of the year is high school graduation. I am sad to see you all go, but I am so excited to see the path the Lord brings you on, the path that is free for you to follow.

Use It

Please take a moment to let this all sink in. To ponder on the many freedoms that you may be taking for granted. As you sit and think about it, ask yourself how you are “using it”?

How are you using your freedoms? It’s a gift, not a right. How are you using it? You don’t have to have the answer. You don’t have to know exactly what you want to be or where you want to go. Put your faith in the Lord for those answers and appreciate and use your freedoms to make a difference in His Kingdom.