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November 23, 2017

kayla breese/River NewsArmy veteran Matt Berth speaks during the 47th annual James Williams Middle School Veterans Day Ceremony Friday in the JWMS gymnasium.
kayla breese/River News

Army veteran Matt Berth speaks during the 47th annual James Williams Middle School Veterans Day Ceremony Friday in the JWMS gymnasium.
11/14/2017 7:30:00 AM
Berth speaks at JWMS Veterans Day event

Kayla Breese
Feature Writer

A post-Sept. 11 veteran was the guest speaker Friday morning at the annual James Williams Middle School Veterans Day Ceremony.

Matt Berth, who served in the Army National Guard from 2002 to 2012, told the assembled crowd about his experiences in the military and reminded them of the sacrifices made by so many, including a young man from Rhinelander who paid the ultimate price.

The ceremony, the school's 47th annual, began with the students performing the national anthem as well as a number of rousing patriotic songs.

After the musical interlude, Berth took to the podium.

A Rhinelander native and 2000 graduate of Rhinelander High School, Berth said he was a student at Nicolet College working toward a nursing degree when he enlisted with the Army National Guard in January of 2002.

From 2003-2004, he was deployed to Tallil, Iraq with the Wisconsin National Guard's 724th Engineer Battalion. In 2009 he was deployed again to Sharana, Afghanistan with the 951st Sappers. During that deployment he was seriously injured by a suicide vehicle improvised explosive device and was sent to the Regional Medical Center in Landstuhl, Germany and to Dwight D. Eisenhower Army Medical Center in August, Ga. for treatment. He was medically retired from the military in April 2012.

During his speech, Berth told the audience about his decision to join the military, his time in the service, and the moments that led up to the attack that injured him.

He explained that he and his fellow soldiers were trained to look for clues as to what a suicide vehicle bomber looked like, including tinted windows, low to the ground body and possibly flat tires.

There were many vehicles in his convoy and no one reacted to a vehicle that fit the bomber description, he explained. He said he noticed the vehicle but thought that since no one else ahead of him reacted that it must be OK. It wasn't.

He asked the crowd to imagine the ringing and pressure from when a gun is shot, magnified by 100. That's what the bombing was like, he said.

The vehicle he was in rolled over, but by some grace he managed to walk away from the 400-pound bomb.

"The vehicle that I was in, they're pretty incredible," he said, adding that they are made in Oshkosh.

He also told the students about Sgt. Ryan Adams, who was his good friend through school and who had served with him.

Adams was killed in action on Oct. 2, 2009. A city street in Rhinelander has since been named in his memory.

Berth mentioned that Adams' mother and sister were in the audience and asked for a moment of silence in his memory. A hush fell over the crowd.

Berth said later he was grateful to have had the opportunity to be the guest speaker.

"I thought it was a huge privilege, a huge honor," he said, adding that it's important for students to hear what veterans have to say.

"It's really important due to the fact that today's youth needs to know what the veterans goe through and what it means to a veteran to get their story out," he said.

He added that he was impressed with how the students conducted themselves and how focused and polite they were.

"It's a great day and everything went very well," Berth said.

Richard Gretzinger, principal of JWMS, was touched by the community's support.

"It's so nice to see the community come together," he said. "The veterans that are there are so special."

He added that he is awed every time the Pledge of Allegiance is said, with the entire student body and the veterans reciting it, and was thrilled to see the students so engrossed in Berth's story.

"Wonderful (speech), you can tell an engagement piece when you look at the students, they've been sitting there for 35-40 minutes and how they were zeroed in on Matt, I thought 'Wow, how wonderful,'" Gretzinger said, adding that he loves seeing the generations come together.

"It's just a day for the veterans to enjoy and to see them sitting around enjoying some coffee and a snack is wonderful," he said.

Randi Miller's FACE class made pumpkin bars and served them to the veterans. Students made placemats for the tables in the cafeteria.

Jim Perlberg, an attendee at the ceremony, served in the Army from 1957-62.

"I come every year and I love it, it's just a wonderful honor for us veterans," he said. "We really appreciate it."

"The students did excellent, very, very nice, I'm proud of them," he added, noting that he is grateful that the school still hosts the ceremony.

"I want to thank the middle school for putting this service on, we really appreciate it," Perlberg said.

Kayla Breese may be reached at

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