Norwich University cadet Ava K. Smith, a graduate of Falmouth High School, delivered an accomplished and moving keynote speech at this year’s Veterans Day Ceremony. The speech, edited for length, is reprinted as follows:
Ladies and gentlemen, distinguished guests, friends, Falmouth community. It is beyond an honor to speak here today. I am Ava Smith, and I am a proud veteran family member. I stand here before you, thankful a million times over, to have stood alongside those who served our country, in the most intimate of ranks—a loved one who supports a veteran—for my entire 20-year life.
I think to myself, “How amazing it is that my mom and my father gave a combined 45 years of service to our country, had firsthand experience in combat and raised a family on military values, customs and culture. How cool it is that my mom, a retired US Army soldier for life, chose this town in which to retire—this community raised my mom, supported our family as we served, and received us back here with open arms.
It’s no secret that families serve with their veteran. Although they may not wear the uniform, the family members support their veteran and appreciate that they are part of something larger than themselves.
Today, across our country—in town halls, city squares, parades and places just like this—we celebrate and honor America’s veterans for their devotion, patriotism, selfless service and sacrifice. It is their loyalty to their country, their own great courage and the impact of their actions that have made us what we are today—and what we’ve been for more than two centuries: the land of the free and the home of the brave!
President Calvin Coolidge said long ago, “The nation which forgets its defenders will itself be forgotten.” I don’t think you can ever forget the United States of America, right? Look around you!
Our military personnel are some of the most talented, dedicated, capable and entrepreneurial professionals in the world. When they leave active-duty ranks, they take with them the knowledge gained from earning academic degrees, certifications and mastering technical skills. These veterans may be some of your favorite people helping you out in this community—you just may not know that they served in the military.
Veterans are teachers, doctors, engineers, social workers, community leaders, first responders and elected officials. They continue to serve this country—this community—by making positive impacts, building stronger futures and inspiring future generations to come.
Now, a little bit about myself, because (as I’m sure you already noticed) I may not fit the profile of the usual guest speaker!
I graduated from Falmouth High School in 2020 and am currently a junior at my very favorite college, Norwich University. I sing a cappella, enjoy hanging out with my friends, hold a black belt in tae kwon do and my two favorite positions are the ones I hold at Norwich—as the emcee for the official Norwich ceremonies, and as a forward for the Norwich women’s tugby team. Yes, I still have all my teeth!
But here are some things most people don’t know about me.
I was born at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, home of the great 101st Airborne- Air Assault Division. I was born in 2002, just months after 9/11 and just months before my parents were called upon to support the division’s first push over the berm into Iraq in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. My father was a career infantry officer who graduated from Ranger school just in time to catch the last flight into that theater. My mom, a career medical officer, led his company’s family readiness group, the Army hospital’s multiple rehabilitation clinics, and executed orders to see the huge number of patients who were evacuated out of combat and needed wound care, prosthetics, and post-operative care within a mere 24 hours of return.
I accompanied my mom as she covered extra weekend duty at the hospital, and I made patients smile as I told them to feel better soon. I especially enjoyed the minutes Mom set aside for me and her just before she dropped me off at childcare early in the morning—she would stop the car in the parking lot, unbuckle me from the baby seat in the back, and cradle me tightly in the front seat. Later, when she was deployed, she made it her business to call me before she went out on every mission. She had integrity, she was strong, and I knew that she would take care of me.
For as long as I can remember, I have known the sound of a helicopter. It was always an exhilarating sound, and, in all the times I have been close to one, I can’t explain the rush of lift-off, dust flying everywhere, and the awe. Even as a toddler, when I would hear a helicopter approaching overhead, I would announce, “Momma—Chinook!” and shout with joy “Look—Black Hawk!”
And I believed growing up that everyone must have a yellow ribbon around a tree in the front lawn. It’s a fact that we had one everywhere we called home. It was always bigger than life and a bold statement piece. To the world, it reflected a family’s and a community’s support, appreciation, and prayers for our deployed service members.
I was well-known at Fort Jackson, South Carolina, for providing improvised stage performances featuring my rendition of none other than the Pledge of Allegiance. In fact, family lore has it that at one time I stood atop an overturned laundry basket set out on the front steps of our house, waved an American flag, and recited the Pledge in its entirety for all the neighbors to behold.
And finally, I made my singing debut as a toddler during a Catholic church service. At the end of Mass, the stately gentleman sitting in the pew behind us tapped my mom on the shoulder and said that he thought he had heard everything, but hearing the 101st Division’s anthem, “Rendezvous with Destiny” belched out by a kid during communion was definitely an inspiring first!
Veterans introduced me to the military culture, values, and community that became the threads of the fabric that make me who I am. A veteran has taught me to be resilient. Changing schools, picking up and leaving when my veterans received orders for a new duty assignment. Honing the art of introducing myself to yet a new group of friends and embracing the opportunities that others may fear as too challenging.
A veteran has taught me to be a servant of the community. From gathering donated supplies for a local pet shelter to cantoring at church to taking time to show visitors at our beaches what a starfish really feels like, I enjoy sharing my talents to make this community stronger.
A veteran taught me there is no “I” in TEAM. I learned that the best way to build a team is to be that bridge between otherwise disparate groups of people and individuals who may have thought they could not be friends. Celebrating people and embracing differences makes everyone stronger and allows everyone to identify with an entity much bigger than themselves. I like to think we are all on Team America.
And a veteran taught me a love of country that I cannot explain but I would never give up.
I look beyond the chaos that is sometimes sensationalized in the media. Beyond the bickering and beyond too often disrespectful exchanges over conflicting ideologies. And I find solace in the fact that we have this beautiful right to peacefully air our differences and to speak freely. I love that we are also encouraged to make things better for ourselves and our children, to improve our communities, and to do our part in continuing to lift this great nation up—the very nation that our veterans have been defending so tirelessly.
To the 1 percent of our population who has, is, or will serve in our armed forces for so selflessly defending our freedom to do our part—thank you. I am so grateful you all joined me here today to thank our veterans for standing for the very thing that unites us all in the end—being American and living in this truly blessed country. May God bless Falmouth and the community that makes it so great on this beautiful Veterans Day.
Ava is the daughter of Paula T. Smith of Falmouth and Jeremy R. Smith. Paula Smith moved to Falmouth in 1972. Her parents, Carole and Harley Knebel, live in West Falmouth. Ava has two siblings in the Falmouth Public Schools: Harley E. Smith, 16, and Melody K. Smith, 13.