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What began as an extra-credit project for her eighth-grade honors English and social studies classes at Veronica Connor Middle School in Grand Island turned into something extraordinary for Jessica Ackendorf.

Students were asked to write an essay for the Patriot's Pen essay contest sponsored annually by the VFW. This years' topic was "Does Patriotism Still Matter?" Jessica's essay was submitted to the VFW Post on Grand Island and judged against 81 other entries. She placed first and received a $100 savings bond from the VFW Post at a ceremony in February.

Her essay was then submitted to various levels of competition -- Erie County, District (five counties) and New York State. She placed first in each of these contests. By placing first in the state, Jessica traveled to Albany to accept her award at the Gold Chevron Ball, which is the VFW's annual state convention. She received a $500 savings bond.

The essay was then submitted to the national competition, representing New York State. She placed sixth and will receive a $4,000 savings bond.

Here is Jessica's essay:

>Does Patriotism Still Matter?

To even begin to determine whether patriotism "still matters," one must understand the meaning of the word. The difficult thing, when defining patriotism, is that it means something different to everyone. To a soldier, it may mean fighting for and defending his country. To a young child, it simply may mean waving a small flag on the Fourth of July. The true joy of patriotism is that everyone displays it differently. Although patriotism is defined as a love and devotion to one's country, that does not necessarily mean citizens have to either agree with or support how the country is being run, only to generally love and appreciate the majestic country that we call America.

From a symbolic flag waving in the air to the patriotic songs we may absentmindedly hum; patriotism is everywhere. It is not just enjoying the freedoms we have, but giving back to our country in return. For instance, Nathan Hale, an American spy during the American Revolution, showed his pride toward his country when he uttered one simple sentence that has forever become a symbol of patriotism in the United States. "I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country." Those words he declared at the face of death beside the British gallows will live on not only in history books, but in people's hearts as well.

Patriotism gives people the sense of pride and belonging toward one's country knowing that everybody is a part of a bigger picture. As a middle school student, I have experience knowing that all anybody wants to do is fit in. The glorious thing about patriotism is that everybody fits in. Even though there are the smart kids and the popular kids and the jocks, once we all sit side by side on the bleachers, cheering for the same team, we put aside our differences and see that we have more in common than we ever thought before. That commonality, that unity, is our country. Patriotism holds our country together, without it we would be nothing.

So, it is asked: Does patriotism still matter? Of course it does. Patriotism is more than a feeling; it is deep, emotional pride toward our country and its people. Whether you are waving a flag, singing the national anthem, or fighting for your country, you feel that. You are a patriot.