Taylor McNair: “Thank You, Veterans”

Each year, a Staples High School student is asked to speak at Westport’s Veterans Day ceremony.

In a town like this — where the military is an afterthought, if thought of at all — finding an appropriate, articulate high school senior is no easy task.

This year, Taylor McNair nailed it.

Here’s his speech, delivered yesterday at Town Hall.

In the fall of 2006, while on leave from Iraq, Private First Class Nick Madaras rounded up as many soccer balls as he could find to bring back for his 2nd tour of duty.  His plan was to distribute the balls to the Iraqi children he had watched day after day.

Unfortunately, he never got the chance.  Nick was killed by an IED shortly after returning to Baqubah, Iraq.

PFC Nick Madaras

Just weeks after hearing of his death, a fellow Wilton citizen and Korean War veteran contacted the Madaras family in hopes of maintaining Nick’s legacy, and more importantly, fulfilling Nick’s desire to do good.  From this, the “Kick for Nick” organization was born: an initiative based in Wilton that collects and ships balls to children in Iraq and Afghanistan, for distribution by U.S. soldiers.

I never had the pleasure of meeting Nick.  I did, however, have the pleasure of fulfilling his one wish.  Three years ago, when I was a freshman in high school, Staples soccer coach Dan Woog approached my older brother, then a senior, and asked if he would organize a “Kick for Nick” drive.

I remember sitting in my basement, deflating hundreds of soccer balls and inscribing “PFC Nick Madaras” on each one.  Yet it wasn’t until just recently, after meeting with Nick’s dad Bill to drop off the soccer balls from another successful drive this year, that I realized the power of those words.

I don’t know many veterans.  So when assistant principal Rich Franzis, an Iraq War veteran himself, asked if I would be interested in giving this speech today, I was honored yet hesitant.  My connection to this country’s servicemen and women was distant, to say the least.

I thought long and hard about the kind of sentiments a 17-year-old kid from Westport would have about Veterans Day.  My grandfathers and uncles didn’t fight in any wars; my friends have shown no interest in enlisting in the military. Yet my mind continued to bounce back to the recent “Kick for Nick drive.”  As it turns out, you don’t need to know a veteran to appreciate this special day.

And so I return to the power of those few words: a simple class rank, PFC, and the name of a fallen soldier, Nick Madaras.  Each and every ball a child receives is etched with this name, which serves as a constant reminder of what the United States military, of what you, have done for the world.  Each time a child touches a soccer ball, and his or her face glows with happiness, we can take pride in the fact that a U.S. soldier created that smile.

Taylor McNair (right) with Bill Madaras, after presenting 150 soccer balls from this year's "Kick for Nick" drive.

In 2008, ESPN did a story on PFC Nick Madaras.  Among the hundreds of comments on their web page, one stands out.  The commenter wrote, “I am a 53 year old US Coast Guard veteran, and when I watched this on ESPN I sat and cried for this beautiful family and this beautiful story. That story describes American soldiers so, so well.”

For me, Veterans Day is more than recognizing the sacrifices a soldier must make.  It’s about recognizing the impact that these sacrifices would have.

Nick Madaras sought to make his impact through the fundamental lesson of sharing.  Other soldiers have made their impact through acts of selflessness or gallantry.  The one thing I’ve discovered over these past few years, however, is that it doesn’t matter what kind of impact you made; rather, that you have made an impact at all.

Nick is like so many other veterans around the country. All of you, whether you know it or not, have gone above and beyond the call of duty in so many ways.  For Nick, this meant bringing happiness to the children he interacted with every day in a war-ravaged country.  For others of you, it might have been saving a fellow soldier’s life, or maybe putting your own life on the line to protect the fundamental principles of this nation.

For me, today is about appreciating that impact.

Servicemen and women are a unique group of people.  In almost every case you are heroic yet humble, altruistic but modest.  For generations, Americans have put the very foundation of our country, liberty, in your hands.  And for generations you have answered this call, and done so valiantly, with little recognition.

So today I know I speak for millions of other Americans when I say, thank you. Thank you Nick Madaras, for making this world a happier place by use of a simple soccer ball.

And thank you, all of you, for the often-intangible yet ever-present impacts you have made, not only in this town or this country, but in every corner of the world.

Dozens of flags in the Staples courtyard honored fallen soldiers yesterday. Each bore the name of a fallen soldier from the area -- including Wilfredo Perez of Norwalk (above), and Nick Madaras.

Click below to view Taylor McNair’s speech, as broadcast on the “Good Morning Staples” TV show.  Taylor begins speaking at the 2:20 mark.

10 responses to “Taylor McNair: “Thank You, Veterans”

  1. Lisa Marie Alter

    Regrettably, I did not attend this year’s ceremony at Town Hall. I have attended past ones and am always moved by the music, speeches and most of all, the (sadly dwindling) presence of our distinguished veterans, and their tremendous humility, and pride in their service.

    I am also consistently impressed by the eloquence of the Staples senior who is selected to speak… this year is no exception. I, like Taylor McNair, know few veterans firsthand, though since moving to Westport, two of my closest friends happen to be Viet Nam vets. I think he expressed our appreciation brilliantly… kudos to you, Taylor.

    My query though, Dan, is:
    Why don’t they simply take the ceremony to Staples High School and make it an “assembly” for the entire school to attend; townsfolk invited ? Do you have any ideas ?

    It has all the makings of a great opportunity for our young citizens to help pay tribute (the high school band could also be a part of it); the keynote speaker is always one of Staples’ own; the assistant principal (Rich Franzis) is a veteran himself — he would be able to attend the ceremony (!), when otherwise he’d have to be “at work.”

    And while I think ideally it should include all the schools, I realize that is logistically difficult. But Staples certainly has the facilities to accommodate the ceremony. And the presence of all those young vibrant people would add so much to the ceremony (whereas, the Town Hall auditorium always seems woefully half-full).

    And all of those students, who like Taylor may not know someone who served, can benefit from a close encounter with a “real live” veteran… as well as have the opportunity to say “thank you.”

  2. Taylor is another fine example of all things good about our Westport youth.

  3. MAGNIFICENT speech…and i LOVE lisa marie alter’s suggestion!

  4. Taylor nailed it… a very thoughtful speech. Great idea of Lisa’s to give Staples a try. Who can make that decision?

  5. Stop the goddamn wars and then you won’t have to worry about where you are going to have next year’s “celebration”!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  6. I am so proud of Taylor. His essay, read aloud, ranks as one the best tributes I have ever heard on Veterans Day. Taylor’s honesty, his empathy, and, truly, his intelligence echoed throughout the school yesterday. I consider myself lucky to know my work is to teach members of this generation.

    Taylor’s words helped me, and so many others, remember all of those Veterans who have sacrificed so much to allow us to come to a beautiful school, to speak our minds freely, and to live in peace here at home. I am sure the men and women Taylor addressed at the ceremony longed to shake his hand.

    As a Veteran, I thank you for representing yourself, your team, and our school as a community of caring as you honor the men and women who have served.

    It was a pleasure to teach Andrew McNair, and I look forward to shaking Taylor’s hand as soon as possible. And to their parents, thank you for raising such wonderful young men.

    Staples yesterday, celebrated service. Patti McQuone and Alice Addicks went above an beyond to decorate the school and to offer flag pins to anyone interested. Our librarians, Julia and Robin, displayed books highlighting the stories from generations of veterans. Debbie Ritter and Chris Garrity created a moving decorative display. Rich Franzis, as seen in the video, wore a small pin, an image of his Bronze Star, awarded for his courage and service while serving in combat in Iraq. That pin was earned.

    That small pin reminded me of a quote that sums up Veterans Day for me, and why we all say ‘Thank you.’ This quote is the reason we take time to remember our wounded, and those Veterans who now, sadly, exist in remembrance:

    A Veteran – whether active duty, retired, National Guard or Reserve – is someone who, at one point in his or her life, wrote a check made payable to ‘The United States of America’ for an amount ‘up to, and including my life.’

    Dan Woog, thank you for using your writing to amplify a thank you message that will stay with me, and many others, for a long, long time.

  7. Richard Lawrence Stein

    I consider myself lucky for knowing and being able to coach Taylor. In my many years of being around young men, I can recall few as mature, as dedicated, as responsible, as thoughtful, and as a complete Human being. The word I can only think of is MENSCH!!! Yesterday I was able to shake his hand and say job well done, but everyday for Taylor in my eyes is job well done.

    PS…. Thank you Carl and Mrs. McNair you have gone above and beyond in raising a Son that all should and are proud of!

  8. excellent post dan. appropriate that taylor, as staples’ last line of defense, speaks so eloquently about those who defend our country.

  9. Carl Addison Swanson

    Nice symbolic gesture to ease some consciences. But the real thank you to Veterans needs to come in the form of better pay and monetary assistance. An E-5 in Afganistan makes the same as someone on unemployment here in the states. Thousands of military families will stand in line at food banks for their Thanksgiving dinners. Hundreds of Iraq veterans are in need of better psych care as they return to promulgate spousal abuse and suicide. 85,000 Veterans are homeless in this country and VA Homes for the aged are in disrepair. VA hospitals are being upgraded but not fast enough for the growing number of Korean and Vietnam Vets in need of help. Soccer balls and flag waving ceremonies are fine but greatly misfocused. There are serious problems for current military personnel as well as veterans. It is time to store the fluff and address the serious issues at hand. And for starters, bring all the troops home!!!!! That is the thanks they truly deserve.

    pscyh care

    • Good luck on any change, Carl. Most politicians are draft dodgers. They show up for all the parades, and that’s about it.

      We should put together an Infantry Company of elected officials and send them over. Maybe Senator Bloomie could lead them. Ha ha ha.