“I never thought it would one day be heard by national judges instead of just my English teacher,” Fillmore Central junior Siri Corson said about her essay for the Voice of Democracy audio essay program held by the VFW each year. Thinking that not much would come of it, she didn’t even bother telling her parents that she had entered. They found out when they received a call in November 2022 informing them that their daughter had won first place in District 1 for her essay. “I just wrote what I wanted to say and submitted it,” Siri said. Her English teacher, Gerri Nielsen had shared the program with her students at the beginning of the 2022-2023 school year. On September 11, Siri was working in the choir room at school sorting music while listening to the class talk about the events of that day in 2001. It was then that she decided to enter the Voice of Democracy. “I was just full of words and thoughts and ideas,” she said. By the time she walked out of that classroom, she had written the whole speech in her head and all that was left to do was put it on paper.
This year’s Voice of Democracy theme was “Why is the veteran important?” Siri had grown up hearing stories of how her great-grandfather, Manford “Stub” Corson had fought bravely in WWII and, against all odds, had survived to come back to Minnesota and raise a family. Stub was awarded many medals for everything he did during WWII, but he kept them all in a coffee can in a closet. When asked one time why he didn’t display his medals, he responded that they were just a “bunch of tin” and what was really important was family. Unfortunately, Stub passed away before Siri was born, but his legacy lives on. “I think that gave her an appreciation for what some veterans have to endure,” Siri’s father Eric Corson explained.
Siri’s essay was also inspired by the veterans of the community. “They show up to every home game without fail with the color guard,” she explained. “That just doesn’t happen anywhere else. You kind of take it for granted, but then there’s people in the stands singing along quietly.” Siri’s mother Tara Corson agreed that Siri’s winning essay was really an honor for those veterans and reflects on their place in the community. “She sees how our area respects and values veterans,” she said.
Siri’s essay had to go through multiple levels before reaching the national stage. First, she won first place at Fillmore Central and then moved up to compete at the district level. She came in first place for District 1, which encompasses southeastern Minnesota, and moved up to the state level. The winner of each of the nine Minnesota districts was invited to the VFW banquet with their families. “It was such an honor to be there,” Eric said. When it was announced that Siri’s essay had taken first place, she was invited up on stage to read it aloud.
She was still in shock that she had won when she took the stage. “I remember looking down at my piece of paper and it was like these dark blobs floating around where the words should be,” she laughed. Despite her nerves, she managed to get through her essay and did such a good job with it that by the time she was finished reading, there wasn’t a dry eye in the room. Later that evening, as the banquet wrapped up, an elderly veteran asked Siri for a copy of her essay. She gave him the one she had read, but not before he insisted on her autographing it.
Siri was invited to the national VFW Legislative Conference’s Parade of Winners ceremony in March, at which the Voice of Democracy state winners would be judged one last time. Out of 36,000 total essays submitted from all 50 states plus the VFW departments of the Pacific Areas, Europe, and unspecified, only 53 made it to the national level. Before leaving for Washington, D.C. on March 3, Siri read her essay once again for the entire student body of Fillmore Central High School as part of her send-off. “A lot of my peers came up to me in the halls and told me how they were moved,” she said. “Even if they didn’t have veterans as family members, they still connected with the words I wrote.”
Siri’s trip was all-expenses paid, and her parents coordinated with the VFW liaison so that she could fly with their family to Washington, D.C. and back. Siri’s three younger brothers, Elias, Jonas, and Leif along with her uncle Luke Corson came along for the trip as well. Once they arrived, they split up with Siri joining the other state winners for a bus tour of a variety of monuments, museums, and attractions in the Washington, D.C. area.
When the Parade of Winners ceremony at the VFW Legislative Conference was livestreamed, Siri had many supporters watching. “The school got very excited about it,” Siri said. “Lots of people watched the livestream.” The pep band even watched it on the bus on their way to a basketball game. Each time her name was not called, they cheered. Finally, all of the winners had been announced except two. Siri and one other student remained on the stage, waiting in anticipation. When Siri’s name was called as the second place winner, she was in shock. Since the Voice of Democracy started in 1946, a student from Fillmore County had never made it past the regional level. “It’s kind of a history making thing for all the veterans in this area,” Eric said.
Siri received a $21,000 Charles Kuralt Memorial Scholarship for her essay along with a VFW jacket, bag, essay book, and memories that she will treasure forever. “I hope that what this does is bring even more attention to what veterans do,” Eric said. “I hope it encourages other students to write and submit an essay. It can change your life.” Siri agreed and will be forever thankful for the opportunity the Voice of Democracy contest gave her. “It’s come to an end in the best way possible,” she said. “It’s humbling to know that you’ve affected the people you’ve grown up with your whole life.” And as the last line of her essay says, “For now I only write, in hopes my voice will carry.”