TAMPA, Fla. — Dressed in neckties with their shirts tucked in, 540 middle school boys stood in silence for more than an hour listening to American heroes Monday morning. The students of Boys Preparatory Academy at the Franklin Middle Magnet focused their attention on the man with the Medal of Honor around his neck.

“In the years of 1940, my generation saved America. Your generation is charged with preserving that America,” WWII veteran Hershel “Woody” Williams said from the steps of the school building.

There was not a peep from the assembled crowd.

“I realize how powerful Mr. Williams’ voice is,” said eighth-grader Michael Siebenthal. “It definitely stands out.”

In 2015, the students at Franklin Boys Preparatory Academy raised money to build a monument on the campus which pays tribute to Gold Star Families. It is still one of the only ones in the state of Florida. The Gold Star Monuments were Williams’ idea. At 96, he’s the oldest living Medal of Honor recipient and Iwo Jima survivor. There are 56 monuments around the nation and 63 more in progress. They are spread across 42 different states.

“I think definitely we have a lot of future service members and a lot of encouraged young minds and I’d like to see where they go because they’re the future,” said Adam Ballard, an active duty Marine Sergeant based in Camp Pendleton near San Diego. “They’re the voters. They’re the politicians and they’re who is going to lead this country so it’s important to bring them up right.”

During the speech by Williams, Ballard sat next to his father, “Doc” Ballard, a Vietnam veteran who received a Medal Of Honor in 1970. 

The monument features etchings of local service members who died in combat, including Cpl. Frank Gross. His mother, Toni, along with other Gold Star families, laid yellow carnation flowers at the foot of the monument during a powerful moment near the end of the ceremony.

Williams wrapped up the hour-long event with poignant words about honoring the sacrifice of soldiers.

“We have to honor how and why they gave their lives,” he said.

The crowd nodded in agreement.