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Fernando Guzman and Mike Rosas didn't ask to go.

They didn't ask to join the U.S. Army at the ages of 19 and 21, respectively. They didn't ask to leave their families, friends or hometown behind. They didn't ask to spend more than a year, each, fighting for the U.S. during the Vietnam War. 

But still they went. They went because they were drafted. 

"I didn't have very much of a choice; I had to go," Rosas, a Guadalupe native and Vietnam veteran who fought during the Tet Offensive, told Spencer LeSuer's sixth-grade class. "You're called upon to do your duty for your country. Some of us have the privileges of joining [the armed forces,] but when you're drafted you don't have a choice. You have to go."

On Friday, Rosas and Guzman were among two dozen veterans from all military branches who chose to share stories of their service with students at Sanchez Elementary. Speaking as part of the school's annual Veterans Day celebration, the two spent their morning answering questions about the year they spent in Vietnam.

"Children needed to be proud of who they are because many of [their families] have a military background," said fourth-grade teacher and event organizer Virginia Scozzari. "It's important for [students] to feel proud about being Americans. It makes them feel like they belong and it helps them honor our heroes."

According to Scozzari, the event began eight years ago after several teachers noticed their strong family history of military service. Featuring patriotic songs, poems and performances, Scozarri said the campuswide celebration of veterans helps students learn the importance of pride and patriotism.

"I always had the calling [to serve,]" said Jose Alvarez Novoa, an Army veteran who served two tours in Afghanistan from 2009 to 2013. "I was at Hancock College when I joined and basically dropped everything."

Novoa said he completed his education at Hancock after returning to Santa Maria. For the past three years he's attended the celebration as a way to pay respect to older veterans and talk to younger generations — including his brother and cousin, both Sanchez students — about his service.

"I think it's a great thing they're doing these events," he said. "It shows that they care; being here is humbling."

As Guzman, Rosas and other veterans watched, students honored their service with songs and performances. First-graders enthusiastically sung the words to "You're a Grand Old Flag." Third-graders performed "Proud to Be an American," and fourth-grade students each recited lines from the poem "My Name is Old Glory."

Esteban Valenzuela, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran and the event's guest speaker, told students that many of the freedoms and luxuries they enjoy are upheld and protected by the sacrifices of veterans. Though many soldiers and veterans put their lives on the line to uphold the American way of life, Valenzuela said they're not always appreciated. 

"How many of you have actually heard about Vietnam before today?" Valenzuela asked the students seated before him. Less than half their hands went up. He told them that the war, for various political reasons, was unpopular in the U.S.

"Nobody applauded for the Vietnam veterans when they came home," he said. "It was very beautiful to hear that today."

The crowd gave a full round of applause. A man from the back shouted "Welcome home."

Mathew Burciaga covers education in Santa Maria and the surrounding area for Lee Central Coast Newspapers. Follow him on Twitter @math_burciaga

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Education Reporter

Santa Maria Times reporter Mathew Burciaga covers education for Lee Central Coast Newspapers.