U.S. Army Spec. Omar Jones retired from the military last year, but the gratitude shown by Etna Road Elementary School students still means a great deal to the Columbus veteran.

"This means a lot more to me and to every service member overseas right now (than you realize)," Jones said to the students gathered at a public Veterans Day celebration Nov. 8 at the school.

Jones, 33, told students he has a small family and received little mail while he was stationed in Afghanistan.

Jones was a part of Operation Enduring Freedom in 2010 and 2011, serving eight years in the U.S. Army -- five active and three as an inactive reservist through last year.

"One of the things that kept me going (in Afghanistan) was schools like this ... we got random mail, letters and Christmas cards from elementary schools. To this day, I still have them," Jones said.

"Those small little things that you're doing have a major impact."

This is the third year that Etna Road Elementary School has been host to a Veterans Day program, to which veterans are invited, said Jessica Moore, the school's principal.

The celebration began about six years ago and originally was held at Kae Avenue Elementary School.

Nicole Nightingale, a music teacher at Etna Road, started the program when she was at Kae Avenue to honor her grandfather, a World War II veteran who earned the Purple Heart.

The decoration -- the oldest among military medals -- is bestowed on service members injured or killed in action.

"He carried it with him, (and) I thought a great way to honor him and other veterans" would be a celebration at the school, Nightingale said.

At this year's event, each of the school's four classes performed a song, with either students or veterans speaking between performances.

All classes then united for a medley of the official songs of each branch of the U.S. military: the Air Force, Army, Coast Guard, Marines and Navy.

Robert Monk, 58, a 20-year-veteran of the U.S. Coast Guard, traveled from the village of Junction City in Perry County to attend the program.

"I drove an hour to get here, but it was worth it," said Monk, whose grandson, Brody, attends Etna Road.

Dressed in uniform, Monk said he was pleased and honored that the school has a program to teach young children about patriotism and service.

"It is a great opportunity for (children) to learn about those who serve our country (and) inspire them to want to serve our country," said Monk, who was attending his first program.

Whitehall resident Jim Bukowski, 88, said he hasn't missed the Veterans Day event at either school.

The 33-year veteran of the U.S. Air Force and Air National Guard said he looks forward to it each year.

"I've been to every one (and) love to see the kids enjoying it," said Bukowski, whose granddaughter, Ariel Bukowski, is a third-grade teacher at Etna Road.

Moore said the program is intended to teach students the history and significance of Veterans Day as well as make it "real" with the presence of veterans.

Students handed carnations to each of the veterans who attended the event.

"They've made a sacrifice for us and our veterans are so important," said Aliyah Wilson, a fifth-grade student at Etna Road.