Sunday, November 16, 2008

Living, Breathing History

Veterans share war experiences with 7th-graders at LBMS

By Joseph Kellard

During his three tours of duty with the Marines in Iraq and Afghanistan, having seen his share of enemy fire as a rifleman on the front lines, Cpl. Michael Panza received many care packages from students. On Monday, he had his first opportunity to speak to a group of seventh-graders, fielding a wide range of questions about his military experiences.

“The questions they had were amazing,” Panza, 29, a Valley Stream native, said on Monday, when Long Beach Middle School honored more than a dozen veterans of wars beginning with World War II.

More than 100 seventh-grade students wanted to know everything from whether the veterans had ridden in tanks to what kind of weather they had to endure. More personal questions drew strong, emotional reactions from some of the men.

“Has the war affected you positively or negatively?”

A student addressed this question to Panza, who at first hesitated, perhaps considering the most appropriate answer to give to schoolchildren. “I made some good friends over there,” he said about his time in the Middle East, “but I also lost a lot of those good friends and will never see them again because of the war.”

Panza added that while he never attended college, being in the military gave him the credentials to become a New York City police officer.

He shared the spotlight in one of four classrooms devoted to specific wars with Frank Ciccone, a Navy instructor and trainer, and Sgt. Steven Paul, a substitute teacher at LBMS who served in the Army during the Gulf War. “When you return home,” said Paul, 39, who wore his sand-colored uniform for the occasion, “you realize more what's important in your life.”

“If you do have children, would you send them to sign up for a war?”

Panza, who wore a red sweatshirt sporting a Marines logo, said he would support his children’s decision if they opted to join the military. “I don't want them to go through what I went through,” he was quick to add after describing his difficulties with readjusting to civilian life. “But that's their own choice. It's not for me to decide.”

Ciccone, who comes from a military family, said he, too, would fully support his children if they followed in his GI-issued bootsteps.

“Because if we don't do it, then we don't have the life we have today, or tomorrow, for your children ... It's a necessity for our country to survive,” Ciccone said.

Each classroom was devoted to a particular war, and students rotated from room to room every 20 minutes, watching slide shows and asking questions. In the room hosting Vietnam veterans, there were slides ranging from swarms of helicopters above American soldiers on an open battlefield to the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C.

“What was war like?”

This simple question was posed to Ron Amato, 59, a friend of math teacher Kerri Rhenback, who spearheaded the effort to bring the veterans to the school.
Amato, who has had a tracheotomy and speaks with an amplifier held to his throat, said, “That's a hard one.” He paused for several seconds, seemingly trying to rein in his emotions. “War is not good,”
he said finally.

Ed Grant, who served in the Army in Vietnam, talked about the 58,000 Americans who didn't come home alive from Southeast Asia. “There wasn't much we questioned about the war then,” he acknowledged. “It was hard to know anything about it.”

Grant, who was also deployed to the demilitarized zone in Korea in the late 1960s, joined Donald Sondergaard in another classroom to talk about the Korean War.

“Is there anything you are proud of that happened during the war?”

Sondergaard, a Long Beach native who enlisted in the Marines and saw combat for nearly two years in Korea, said the fact that he survived was enough. “The proudest thing is that I came home and got to see my family again,” he told the students.

Grant — whose son Keith, the former editor of the Long Beach Herald, led an Army platoon in Baghdad — offered his thoughts on what made him proudest about his military career. “It's the whole feeling that you are serving your country in an honorable effort,” he said.

“Was basic training hard?”

This was asked of the World War II veterans. “Training is to teach you how to survive in very arduous circumstances,” said Thomas Thornton, who during the war joined the Navy, where he had a 30-year career as a master chief air traffic controller. “... And you have to make your situation one hell of a lot better. If not, you're not going to be coming back. That's the secret of training.”

With cane in hand, Lenny Cherlin, 89, of Long Beach, talked about how he was the lead clarinet player in the 273 Army Ground Forces Band at Camp Blanding in Florida, which helped boost the morale of soldiers ready to be deployed overseas.

“Having him shows a different aspect of war for the students,” said Buddy Hoffman, a social studies teacher who helped organize the event, along with Rhenback, Judy Knoop, Wendi Klein, Lauren Harold, Jill Cherlin and Janna O'Brien — a group known as Team 7-1.

“Now I know what they had to go through when they were in the war,” student Casiahn Castro said afterward, “and I can appreciate what they did to protect us.”

In the opening ceremony, Castro and her classmates lined a hallway decorated with American flags and flags representing each branch of the armed forces, where they applauded the veterans as they paraded through and the school band played “Anchors Aweigh” and “Over There.”

“I learned that as kids, we take things for granted, especially when they told us about what they went through and the conditions in the wars,” said student Jessica Shreck. “We at home are so comfortable, and they were sleeping in tents on the ground.”

Rhenback said her father was sickened by Agent Orange while serving in Vietnam and died of cancer four years ago. Last year she invited some of his fellow veterans to speak at the school, and her students asked many informed questions. So she and her team decided to stage a larger event before Veterans Day this year, with students and staff inviting relatives, who are veterans, to speak.

“Everyone should thank a vet, every day, not just on Veterans Day, and we try to impress that here,” Rhenback said. “My father, the only thing he loved more than his family was his country. I'd like these kids here to feel that too.”

“The goal of the day was to give the kids an experience that they can't get in a textbook,” Hoffman said. “This was definitely accomplished.”