Alumni speak at Veterans Day Assembly


Ariella Frommer , Staff Writer

Alumni veterans and active duty members Eric Derecktor ’12, Ben Jacobson ‘09, Victor Ladd ‘11, Matthew Meltzer ‘13, and Elizabeth Vierya ‘04, along with Middle Division dean and history teacher John McNally, spoke at the first Veterans Day assembly since 2019 this Tuesday. 

Clementine Bondor (12) helped plan the assembly after talking with English teacher Dr. Adam Casdin about her senior reflection on the military, she said. “He had asked me if I was interested in bringing back the Veterans Day assembly and without hesitation, I said, “absolutely.” Casdin reached out to the alumni and asked them if they would like to speak at the assembly.

Since the last assembly in 2019, the school has not recognized Veterans Day any more than a line in an email, Bondor said. “It’s easy to get lost in the New York City bubble of saying ‘oh, the military is someone else’s problem,’ but it’s something so personal for so many people.”

Before the assembly, McNally emailed the speakers, asking them to speak honestly and to ensure the assembly did not become a recruiting event for the military, he said. “The panel guests really tried to broaden the message beyond the military, and the hope was to give students something to think about no matter what their thoughts politically are about the military.”

Throughout the assembly, there was not one overarching viewpoint on the armed forces, McNally said. “For a school like Horace Mann, we are in a bubble here, so hearing different viewpoints and different perspectives is valuable.”

Gabe Jaffe (11) was excited for the assembly to hear stories he is not usually exposed to, he said. “When I think of Horace Mann and its alumni, I do not typically associate their career paths with the United States military.”

Meltzer agreed to speak at the assembly to share his unique experience, he said. “When I was at Horace Mann, I did not have a whole lot of exposure to people who had served in the military, so the opportunity to provide that to the current student body was exciting to me.”

Going into the assembly, Meltzer was not expecting the level of engagement he received, he said. “When we were looking for questions, there were a ton of people raising their hands, which was surprising but fantastic.”

At the start of the assembly, Bondor gave her senior reflection on why she wanted to join the Army. “I hoped that there might be one freshman girl sitting in the audience, just like I had [in the assembly in 2019], and realizing that she could be up there one day, too.” 

After Bondor’s senior reflection, McNally introduced the assembly and each veteran alum. McNally asked several prepared questions to the panel before opening it up to questions from the audience.

The veterans first discussed their motivations for joining the military. A common reason amongst the alumni was not wanting to follow the traditional path that the school sets up for students: graduate high school, attend an Ivy League college, and get a well-paying job.

Even though the school does not prepare students physically to engage in combat, it teaches critical thinking, a crucial skill in the military, Meltzer said.

Gabe Jaffe (11) was surprised by his answer, he said. “This was interesting for me to think about as I wouldn’t typically associate the activities we do in school with activities done in the military.”

On the other hand, the school did not prepare Derecktor for the economic and political diversity between him and others he worked with. Regardless whether his viewpoints aligned or diverged from them, he had to learn how to work with people of different backgrounds, he said.

Milo Mandelli-Valla’s (11) favorite moment in the assembly was when the speakers discussed the morality of their actions, and how they dealt with disagreeing with an order, he said. “It raised a question about how far military action can be taken and brought up the human side of combat, in the sense that morals come into war,” he said. “It’s not just a matter of good versus evil in that way.”

Jacobson flipped the question of military members’ responsibility for their actions onto the audience. While the military ultimately “pulls the trigger,” the public votes for politicians who make decisions and pay taxes that fund the armed forces, he said.

Given that the assembly happened on Election Day, McNally appreciated Jacobson’s response because it was directed towards the students, he said. “The idea of ‘you’re a citizen, you have a voice, use that voice, whether it’s protesting, voting, or writing letters,’ was really powerful.”

At the talkback, Meltzer’s favorite question asked was about the alums’ opinion on a mandatory draft, because it allowed him to provide his own idea for service, he said. “Most military officers do not want there to be a draft because we do not want the people who we are leading to not want to be there,” he said. “But I talked about a required or, at least, encouraged, public service.” The idea that everyone should spend a period of time serving their community in some way after graduating would bring society together, he said. 

In addition to speaking to students, Meltzer enjoyed reconnecting with the other alumni, he said. Meltzer, the youngest of the alumni, looked to the others for mentorship when applying to the Naval Academy, while at the Academy, and when he was serving, he said. 

After the assembly, Bondor hopes students see that there are many different paths after graduation, she said. “When I entered high school, Horace Mann and the military seemed mutually exclusive. To hear the perspective from someone who has taken the road less traveled by can be really valuable.”

Mandelli-Valla has always wanted to join the military, and the assembly affirmed his plans, he said. “I was very appreciative of the school taking the time to have speakers from this under-appreciated sphere of our society.”

Even if it is not through the military, the idea of service was highlighted at the assembly, McNally said. “To commit ourselves to a mission larger than our own success, our own grades, and our own college admittance was inspiring. Hopefully, it allowed students to think, ‘how can I contribute?’”