Ranger Principal Kelley McDonald said Thursday she didn’t think Ranger School could ever do too much for our country’s veterans.
Moments later, the school proved it by allowing American Legion Post 96 to honor Robert Allen Duffek during the school’s annual Veterans Day program.
After members of Hiwassee Dam High School’s band played “The Star-Spangled Banner,” Glen Gale and David Burrell of the post’s honor guard unfolded a flag, then held it so all the children could see it from their seats on the bleachers.
As Larry Thunder Wolf Limon sounded “Taps” on a Native American flute, they folded the flag into a triangular shape.
Once properly folded, Gale solemnly walked to where the school’s guests were seated, kneeled and presented the flag to Duffek’s son, David, who was filled with emotion.
“I greatly appreciate it,” David Duffek said. “It means that my father can be laid to rest properly.”
The elder Duffek was an aviation electrician’s mate for the U.S. Navy. He served on USS Intrepid in the 1960s.
“He wanted to be on the carrier,” David Duffek said. “He loved working on (the jets).”
After serving in the Navy for 4-6 years, he went into law enforcement. He was a police officer in Hillsborough County, Fla., for about 30 years before retiring to Martins Creek in 1998.
“He absolutely loved the mountains,” said David, who Duffek convinced to move to the area with him 20 years ago. “He fell in love with Murphy.”
His love for planes continued through retirement. Duffek had his own Cessna and loved flying it.
On Sept. 28, 2017, Duffek passed away He had pancreatic cancer, and suffered a heart attack at home after his first treatment for the cancer. There wasn’t a funeral for Duffek, who was cremated, and David Duffek was pained that there was never a proper flag presentation to honor his father’s service.
When he talked about what happened one day at work, one of his co-workers, Chuck Bowers, vowed to do something about it. “I felt like justice wasn’t done. It wasn’t completed,” Bowers said.
Bowers, a member of The American Legion, asked Limon, the post commander, if they could make things right for this family.
Since Limon and The American Legion unofficially adopted Ranger School, he asked McDonald if they could insert a flag ceremony for Duffek in the school’s annual Veterans Day ceremony.
“I was like, what an honor to do that at our program,” McDonald said.
The school live-streamed the program on its Facebook page so everyone who could not attend could view it. That included Debbie Duffek and Shirley Fuller, the veteran’s daughter and ex-wife, who live in Colorado.
David Duffek said his father was an extremely modest man who would have been honored and blessed to be recognized in such a public way with children involved.
“It would blow him away,” David Duffek said. “He’s probably giving me a big ol’ hug upstairs right now.”
The ceremony continued with the school’s annual recognition of about 70 veterans in attendance, with each receiving a medal as a token of the school’s appreciation. Students in all grades sang the Armed Forces medley, followed by teacher and veteran Greg Elliot reading “In Flanders Fields.” The eighth-grade class then arranged themselves on the risers to do what they requested to do for the veterans – sing “Hallelujah” as music director Josh Griggs accompanied them on the keyboard.
The event ended with veterans and their spouses lining the hallways, and students shaking each one’s hand before heading back to their classrooms.