RINCON — The painting on the Ebenezer Middle School gym wall was the perfect decoration for Friday's special occasion.
An enormous American flag-wielding eagle hovered over a patriotic Veterans Day celebration that featured the reading of student essays, music and a special guest — Lt. Col. Clay Livingston, commander of the 4-3 Assault Helicopter Battallion at Hunter Army Airfield.
"President Reagan said it best when he said, 'Some people live an entire life not knowing if they ever made a difference in the world. Military veterans, they don't have that problem," the commander explained early in his remarks.
Before Livingston claimed the podium, teachers and parents in the audience who served in the military were recognized. They received a rousing ovation during a musical segment that spotlighted the Eagle Winds, South Effingham High School band director Sean McBride and Jayden Evans, an interpretor for the deaf.
Livingston's primary objective was to define what it means to be a veteran.
"Veterans have missed birthdays, anniversaries, special holidays, family reunions — you probably wanted to miss those — but surely they didn't want to miss (high school) graduation," he said. "Some veterans are not with us today because they have given the ultimate sacrifice."
After pausing, Livingston asked, "Why do they sacrifice so much?"
"The simple answer is that they believe in something bigger than just themselves," he said. "They do not have selfish motives. They do not seek individual rewards. They do not seek individual fame or fortune.
"They believe in our Constitution. They believe in freedom. They believe in diplomacy."
With an election just a few days away, Livingston reminded his audience that the right to cast a ballot in the U.S. and the freedom os speech exists because of veterans.
He also referenced the upcoming holiday season, saying the military protects America's religious freedoms.
Livingston encouraged audience members express their gratitude to veterans.
"Just tell them a simple 'thank you' because a 'thank you' can go a very long way," he said.
Livingston said serving in the military was not one of his childhoods goals.
"My father and mother were not in the military," he said. "I really didn't have a grandfather in the military. It just wasn't on my mind.
"In fact, the only thing I did that was pseudo military was strap bottle rockets onto small plastic Army men around the Fourth of July.
"At the time, I didn't think I would ever fly s multimillion dollar helicopters."
Livington, who served two tours in Iraq, said the Army's core values he has learned over the last 18 years stick with him.
"Not only do I apply them in my career, they are always present in my personal life as well," he said.
Livingston stressed the Army anacronym "LDRSHIP," which stands for loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity and personal courage. He said those traits mesh well with "SOAR," a set of Ebenezer Middle School traits designed to enhance learning. They include self-control, offer kindness, act responsibly and respect.
Livingston warned the students that they will make mistakes but they should not fear them.
"Lift yourself off the ground and learn from them," he said. "Don't do the same mistake twice, and then go tell others about the mistake that you made in hopes that they don't make the same mistake."
Livingston parted with a few more words of advice.
"Continue to learn and grow, and know that you can do whatever you want as long as you try hard and have a plan to get there," he said. "Remember, this is Veterans (Day) weekend. Engage with a veteran and remember to 'SOAR' like Eagles."