Her mission: Enhancing Veterans Day at CA

LtCol Peter Blake meets his daughter Leah for the first time after returning from Iraq.

Junior Helen Blake remembers her first days at Colorado Academy as an incoming Ninth Grader. Like most Freshmen who were new to CA, she needed an icebreaker when she met people, and she had a good one.

“When I came to CA, I would tell people it was the tenth school I had attended,” she says. “For me, that was normal.”

Blake’s father, LtCol Peter Blake (Ret.), served in the Marines for 20 years, flying AV-8B Harrier jets, which are capable of vertical or short take-off and landing and can reach speeds of more than 600 mph. Blake was born in Kansas, but she says the family “lived all over the place,” including Arizona, where her father was commanding officer of VMA-311 “The Tomcats,” an operational Harrier squadron based out of Marine Corps Air Station Yuma; Northern Virginia, where her father worked at the Pentagon; and California, where he attended graduate school at Stanford after he retired.

She remembers there were long periods of time when her father was away from home during deployments aboard aircraft carriers and to Iraq and Japan, lasting six to ten months. Instead of using a calendar to help Blake and her younger sister Leah mark the days until he returned, her mother used a child-friendly method of tracking time—chocolate.

“I remember she created an aluminum foil container filled with Hershey’s Kisses,” Blake says. “Every day my dad was gone, we would get to eat one, until on the day he came home, we ate the last one.”

LtCol Blake, who, at the time, was Commanding Officer of VMA-311 “The Tomcats,” an AV-8B Harrier squadron, with his wife Molly and daughters Helen and Leah in front of a Harrier jet

After her father retired in 2013, Blake says she saw her experience growing up in a military family as a way to differentiate herself in a world outside the military. “Because we moved around so much, and I attended all kinds of schools, including Lutheran and Catholic, I was able to meet people with different backgrounds in many states,” she says. “That gave me a different perspective from other people.”

Helen Blake

In November 2019, the Blake family watched to see how CA would mark Veterans Day. As he always does, Head of School Dr. Mike Davis published a Veterans Day blog, which focused on his family’s history serving in the military. Helen and her mother, Molly, discussed whether CA could do more, and that inspired Helen to take action. She emailed Tenth Grade Dean Emily Perez, Eleventh Grade Dean Steven Hammer, Senior Dean Gabe Bernstein, and Dr. Davis, and she eventually ended up meeting with Director of Alumni Sue Burleigh.

“It was actually a little more work, more meetings, and coordination than I expected,” Blake says. “But I’m happy with the way it all turned out.”

Faculty and students attend the Veterans Day Town Hall via Zoom.

Alumni and veterans

Working with Blake, Burleigh contacted two CA alumni and asked them to speak at an Upper School Town Hall during Veterans Day week. Blake introduced the two over Zoom:

  • Corporal Austin Lee Carpenter ’05, who served in the Presidential Salute Battery (GUNS Platoon) Headquarters, Headquarters Company, 1st Battalion, 3d US Infantry Regiment;
  • Sergeant Colin Gumm ’94, B Co. 2/327 INF, and 324th Tactical PsyOp Company.
Colin Gumm ’94 in Iraq

Gumm enlisted in the Army after graduating from CU Boulder. He served in the infantry in Kosovo in 2000-2001 and returned for a second tour from 2005-2006, when he was deployed to Iraq to do psychological operations (PSYOP). “Psychological operations means dealing with hearts and minds,” he told CA Upper School students. “Our job was to understand what the people of Iraq wanted and act as a liaison between the government and the people.”

Austin Lee Carpenter ’05

Carpenter dreamed of joining the Navy SEALs, only to run into a health issue that made him ineligible. Instead, he served as an Army infantry mortarman at Arlington National Cemetery, where he was responsible for firing M1 Howitzers to honor dignitaries at special ceremonies and veterans as they are laid to rest.

“I feel incredibly lucky to have joined the military and met people from all around the country and the world,” he told the students. “We serve together regardless of gender, race, and religious views. We can disagree on some levels, but we have so much more in common with each other than what makes us different.”

The Constitution and what it stands for

Along with her classmates, Blake listened carefully to the two veterans. She agreed with Carpenter when he said that he believed military service should be voluntary, not required. She felt that Gumm’s reminder about the importance of veterans’ mental health was important. For Blake and the entire Upper School, Veterans Day took on new meeting through the words of CA alumni.

“To me, Veterans Day marks the kinship among those who have served,” Gumm said. “It is a time to say ‘thank you’ to people who have been willing to risk their safety, health, and lives for a job, whatever that job is around the world.”

“When you enlist, you give the government a blank check,” Carpenter added. “On Veterans Day we remember the honor, duty, selfless service, and sacrifice required to protect the Constitution and what it stands for.”

As for Blake, she looks forward to next year, with the hope that even more CA veterans will participate in what could become a new tradition at Colorado Academy.