To honor Veterans Day

Understanding war's sacrifice

November 11, 2007|By Cassandra A. Fortin | Cassandra A. Fortin,Special to the Sun

In a clear voice, Zachary Novak read a biography of a fallen soldier.

"Patrick Ryan Adle. Born March 18, 1983. Date of death: June 29, 2004. Cause of death: He was killed when the Humvee he was riding struck a landmine."

When Novak finished, the next student read a biography of another soldier, until eight profiles of county residents killed in the line of duty in recent years were read.

The activity, part of a Veterans Day program in government class at Fallston High School last week, struck a chord with Novak, a 17-year-old senior.

"It's a day to pay homage to people who made the ultimate sacrifice for our country," said the Bel Air resident who hopes to work at a U.S. embassy after college. "It means a lot to me."

The program was created more than a decade ago by government teacher Pat Whitehurst, who wanted to engender patriotism among students and teach them the purpose of Veterans Day.

"I had no idea before today that this community had been affected by the war as much as it has been," said Forest Hill senior Zachary Mullen, 17, after the profiles were read. "Veterans Day is a way to remember these people."

The program consists of a classroom lesson followed by a walk through a gallery of photographs and newspaper articles about the fallen soldiers that Whitehurst created in the social studies wing of the school.

Whitehurst began the lesson with a short history of Veterans Day, which was established as Armistice Day to mark the official end of World War I. The first celebration was observed in 1919, after President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed the holiday.

The program first focused on soldiers from the county who died during the Vietnam War. Whitehurst initially put together about 30 biographies and has updated and added to the program. His additions include the nine soldiers killed since Vietnam in the Iraq, Afghanistan and Persian Gulf conflicts.

In recent years, the realities of military service have hit closer to home for the students because of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Most of the students said they knew about at least one of the three slain Fallston graduates.

Learning about local residents who died gives Veterans Day new meaning, said Andrew Sweitzer, 17, of Forest Hill.

He said his grandfather was in the Battle of the Bulge during World War II but never talked about it, so Sweitzer never fully understood Veterans Day.

"I didn't know what I was supposed to do, or if I was supposed to do anything," he said. "Now I'm starting to better understand what Veterans Day is all about."

The Fallston program also aims to teach students the distinction between Veterans Day, a holiday to honor living members of the armed forces, and Memorial Day, which honors fallen soldiers.

Whitehurst makes a point to excoriate the commercialization of the holidays, saying that in recent years they have been reduced to an event for mall sales. He showed the students several fliers announcing Veterans Day sales.

"We have made a mockery of Veterans Day and Memorial Day," Whitehurst said to the students. "We wouldn't be an independent country without our veterans. We wouldn't have any of the other holidays that we celebrate, because we wouldn't have a free country."

After sending the students to the gallery to peruse the articles and photos, Whitehurst called them back into the classroom and asked how they plan to spend Veterans Day.

"What will you do on Veterans Day?" he asked. "Will you visit a veteran or his spouse? Will you visit a cemetery? Or will you rake the leaves in the yard of a veteran's house and when he or she offers you $20 for your effort, will you tell them, "No, I am just doing this to thank you?' "

Brook McKeown said she plans to call her grandfather, who served in the Navy.

"I just want to call and thank him for his service to our country," the 17-year-old Baldwin resident said. "I think what he did is a great thing, and it's easy to take it for granted."

Karissa Pavelka said she plans to share her grandfather's war stories with her family on Veterans Day, she said. As a cook in the military during World War II, he had experiences that he passed on to her, she said.

"People like my grandfather told stories about the war, and I think a way to honor them is to remember the stories and to listen to them," said Pavelka, 17, of Forest Hill.

Regardless of how the students spend the day, Whitehurst said that he hopes they won't take the holiday for granted.

"So many citizens ... don't understand that the sacrifices of the past are to make way for the future," he said.

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