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Lakeshore HS band heads to France to help mark 70th anniversary of D-Day

By Denise Bohn, dbohn@wsbt.com
Published On: Jun 02 2014 07:16:29 PM CDT

The Lakeshore High School Marching Band leaves Tuesday for a trip of a lifetime. As WSBT's Denise Bohn reports, the band will play at the D-Day 70th Anniversary Show in Normandy, France.

STEVENSVILLE, Mich. -

Imagine taking 180 teenagers on a trip to a foreign country!

Getting the passports alone is a feat.

The Lakeshore High School Marching Band from Stevensville, Mich. is preparing to go to France.

All 180 students and 50 chaperones board a plane early Tuesday morning to travel thousands of miles to play in a special ceremony marking the 70th anniversary of D-Day.

The Lakeshore band has won 3 state championships, performed at the Fiesta Bowl and played at Disney World 14 times.

"This is the crown jewel," said Band Director Lori VanKoenig, who's been in charge of the band for 26 years.

VanKoenig says none of that comes close to this week's special performances in Normandy, France.

"We feel that we are representing Michigan and the United States and it's not...it stopped being about a school or a community," VanKoenig explains. "It's about a much larger vision."

In 2012, the band received an official invitation from the mayor of the village of Sainte-Mere-Eglise to play in the parade.

At the height of the World War II, the village, under the control of the Nazis, was freed by American troops.

The trip however comes with a hefty price tag.

Thanks to a year's worth of fundraisers, grants and corporate donors, they were able to raise the whopping $350,000 needed to travel.

"I've gotten a lot of 'Oh, you guys are lucky you get to go to France.' We've put a lot of hard work into this," said freshman french horn player, Bryce Robinson.

"This is not a for fun vacation trip. This is a purpose," stressed VonKoenig. :They have 8 performances in 4 days."

It's a purpose that involves more than just playing music.

Band members will honor 1,400 Michigan veterans by wearing special ribbons on their uniforms.

The kids wrote to each of the veterans and have a large album in the band room filled with the touching letters they received back.

Sophomore Alexandra Hengy is now friends with her 91-year-old veteran Robert Nowles.

"He came to visit, and when I saw him, it was overwhelming," said Hengy, wiping away tears.

He gave her a card with a photo of him in uniform and another surprise inside.

"Inside the card was actually $200 dollars," said Hengy. "That's when I broke down. He said, 'This is for you to spend when you are in France.'"

And what does this 16-year-old plan to do with the money?

"I know I want to get him something," smiled Hengy.

Band members will also be paying their respects to 700 Michigan soldiers who did not return home from the war, buried in two cemeteries in Normandy.

They are pouring vials of Michigan beach sand collected by students from 25 school districts statewide onto their gravesites.

"Just making sure that soldier knows, where ever he is, we appreciate what he did," said sophomore Jackson Lybbert.

More than 2,000 Americans died on D-Day, the atrocity shown on the big screen in the 1998 Oscar Award winning film Saving Private Ryan.

By dawn on June 6, 1944, approximately 156,000 Allied troops stormed Normandy's beaches. The landings became known as the beginning of the end of the deadliest war in history.

During out interview for this story a few days prior to leaving, band members picked up their instruments and played one of the 3 special selections they will perform this June 6th.

The piece is titled "Each Time You Tell Their Story."

"It's deep, it's moving,"says Lybbert before picking up his trumpet and joining in.

The band will march from the Monument of the Braves to the National Guard monument, then by Omaha Beach.

"That is what I think pays the most respect to those that served, to those that died...is that beautiful song," Lybbert said.

The band will observe a moment of silence, overlooking the beach, where so many young lives were lost, where their own lives will likely be transformed.

"I would say this is going to change the course of some of their lives," said VanKoenig.

"That's going to be unimaginable. I can't tell you what it's going to be like, but I'm probably never going to feel something like that in my life," agrees Lybbert.

"It wasn't just us," said Robinson. "It was the whole world came together to do this one thing."

Before returning home next Tuesday, the kids will refill those vials with sand from Omaha Beach and distribute them to schools that helped support their trip.

And they received a lot of support from all over. Elkhart's Conn-Selmer sent percussion instruments from its Spain office to France for the kids to use so Lakeshore would not have to ship those instrument oversees.

And when they get back home, their work is not done. Band members will mail those 1,400 special ribbons they wore during the show to each of the veterans they represented.

There will be some time for sightseeing on the trip. The group is visiting the LeLourve Museum and the Eiffel Tower, among some other popular tourist spots.

To follow the band's trip go to its Facebook page, "Normandy 2014-Lakeshore Band." The group will be posting photos and posts along the way.

CLICK HERE FOR THE BAND'S FACEBOOK PAGE