Boy, 9, makes saying thanks to veterans his mission

Gifts from Howard pupils shared at VA hospital

February 16, 2000|By Lisa Respers | Lisa Respers,SUN STAFF

The valentines, technically, might have been a day late, but to patients at the Baltimore Veterans Affairs Medical Center they were right on time.

Yesterday, 9-year-old Nathan Coleman walked the halls of the VA center downtown handing out cards and candy in appreciation of veterans' service. Inspired by a newspaper column, the North Laurel third-grader has made it his mission to honor local World War II veterans.

"I think the veterans are very important people and they should be honored for what they did," Nathan said before beginning his trek to bring cheer to the patients. "I got each grade at my school to make cards for them."

A pupil at Gorman Crossing Elementary, Nathan has a personal interest in World War II. His great-uncle Grady Gilfillan, who served as a sniper in the war, guarded the flag at Mount Suribachi in Iwo Jima and was photographed beneath the flag with other Marines by photographer Joe Rosenthal, who took the famous flag-raising photos in 1945.

His mother, Gina Coleman, said Nathan learned about his great-uncle's history from his maternal grandfather, Harold Gilfillan.

"My dad was telling him stories," Coleman said. "It's really helped to bridge the generational gap, and we have gotten to share a lot of family stories that way."

Nathan said that after reading an Ann Landers column about the National Salute to Hospitalized Veterans during the week of Feb. 14, he knew he wanted to do something to say thank you.

"I think the veterans need some cheering up. Especially the ones in the hospital," said Nathan, who can rattle off facts about the war at a moment's notice.

Armed with a heart-shaped basket filled with chocolates and peppermints yesterday, Nathan joined his mother toting a bucket filled with about 500 valentines made by schoolchildren at Gorman Crossing.

At veteran Charles Myers' room, Nathan bounded over to the bed with a handful of cards and introduced himself.

"Were you drafted?" Nathan asked the 80-year-old from Baltimore. "What's your biggest memory from the war?"

Myers, who served as an Army staff sergeant in Europe during World War II, seemed delighted to share his stories.

"I think one of the biggest was when we were in a town in Italy and the Germans doubled back on us," Myers said. "That was sort of a scary thing."

Sabrina Coleman Clark, a spokeswoman for the medical center, said VA officials plan several events for hospitalized veterans during the national salute week. Clark said Nathan's visit was special because often groups or organizations visit but seldom does the center hear from individuals who want to participate.

"His is rare," Clark said. "It's pretty neat that he had the courage to come on his own."

Jan Brudzinski, a Gifted and Talented Program teacher at Gorman Crossing, said Nathan has selected honoring World War II veterans as a school project. In addition to getting his schoolmates to make cards, Nathan sent home a survey to gather information about veterans who might be in the families of other schoolchildren.

"He's gotten the students very curious by sharing some of his research," Brudzinski said. "He's already gotten a lot of responses back, and eventually I think he would like to collect some artifacts and set up a little minimuseum about the war here at the school."

Nathan said his main goal is to raise awareness of and collect funds for a planned World War II Memorial in Washington. He has one enthusiastic supporter.

"I'm going to give you my information, and when you start collecting I want to make a donation," Myers said from his hospital bed. "You stay in touch."

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