Veterans receive warm response from students

Photo by Laura Williams

Photo by Laura Williams

ALBANY -- The respect, hospitality and appreciation given to veterans meant a great deal to the men who have served our country.

Albany High School students and faculty paid a stirring and impressive tribute to veterans of multiple wars during a Veterans Day event held at the school Tuesday.

Students and staff brought to life the experiences many of the veterans endured by creating, for example, life-size replicas of D-Day hedgehog beach obstacles, maps, photos and even handed out copies of a guide to France that was distributed to World War II soldiers. They also displayed real World War II helmets, including a rare SS M40 troop helmet.

In the Vietnam War display, staff used donated netting from the Georgia National Guard and real equipment used by history teacher Robert Rusconi's father and other items he has purchased over the years.

The Persian Gulf War/War on Terror display featured a framed portrait of Saddam Hussein that was seized from one of his 63 palaces by American troops. The Marine Corps Logistics Base-Albany even brought a Humvee for students to check out. Col. Ken Vaughn of Savannah placed body armor and a helmet on students to give them an idea of what today's soldiers wear for protection. Vaughn also explained what America has done in the Persian Gulf in recent years and what the country continues to do.

The event also included a wall of honor for veterans. The display offered faculty and students to post a picture and information about loved ones who are serving or who have served in the past. The school even asked students to pause late in the day as a recording of "Taps" played over the intercom.

The effort and the level of detail involved in the event meant a great deal to the veterans, some of which were called by teachers to tell their stories after they were chronicled in The Albany Herald recently. In all, more than 30 military personnel from the Marines, Navy, Air Force and Georgia Army National Guard volunteered their time at the event.

"My wife just called me and asked how it was going and I said, 'I've had a great day. I haven't had a day like this in a long time,'" said John Monroe, a Vietnam veteran who served in the Army's 39th Infantry Combat Engineer Battalion. "It was very emotional, but very rewarding. We had a Vietnamese student here today and that really made me feel good."

Ronnie Ricks, who flew helicopters with the Army's 1st Cavalry Division in Vietnam, was also touched by the students' and faculty's Veterans Day daylong event. Albany High officials provided the veterans with a free breakfast and lunch.

"When we got back, we didn't get a good reception and these kids have been great," Ricks said. "They've been very interested and asked all sorts of questions. I was surprised. This reception has been extremely nice. This was awesome."

The goal of the event, which was organized by school's social studies department and led by Chairperson Will Thomas, was to educate the students beyond what they may have learned in a textbook or movie.

"What I was hoping to see is that kids would see the people who experienced this war," said social studies teacher Shawn Wiley of World War II. "I mean, total mobilization; it was a worldwide event for freedom and I think our younger generations are forgetting that. And to see that patriotism (from these veterans), I don't want to see it die. I want to remind them we're only as strong as the people that went before us."

U.S. history teacher Susan Braunschuweiger liked the fact that the event connected the students with veterans within the Albany community. Ninth-grade social studies teacher Thaddeus Jackson appreciated how the program brought reality to the veterans' sacrifices.

"I wanted to get my ninth-grade students involved because a lot of them take what the veterans did for granted and that freedom is not truly free," he said. "You have to fight for it."

Through hearing the veterans tell their stories and seeing the intricate displays, students said they gained a greater perspective on what many of the soldiers had to do to survive combat experience.

"I think it's very neat that they've been through all this stuff and we appreciate them for it," said student Kiana Mack, a junior. "Because without them, we wouldn't have freedom like we do today."

Even though it wasn't easy to pull off the Veterans Day program, history teacher DeeAnn Owens said the work was more than worth it.

"This is a huge day," she said. "It was a huge undertaking, but it was also a huge reward to give to all the veterans."

Albany High Assistant Principal Kono Smith fought in both Persian Gulf wars and said the effort of the school's social studies department couldn't be overstated.

"Our social studies department has done a wonderful job of creating a visual image of what our soldiers faced in a war zone," Smith said. "The testimony of the veterans that came through has added a real life testimony and given credence to what they're learning in the textbook. And we are very proud of our history department here.

"As a veteran, I'm also proud that our social studies teachers and students are highlighting the pride that we should show in honoring our men and women in uniform," he added.

The Albany High event was one of several Veterans Day activities and events that Albany area public schools and colleges did and planned to do to honor military personnel past and present.

Albany State University will hold a Veterans Day observance today at 11 a.m. on ASU's Pedestrian Mall between the HPER gym and ACAD building. Michael Bryant, field representative for U.S. Congressman Sanford Bishop, D-Albany, will be the keynote speaker. Bryant served in the Marines from 1987 to 2001. In case of poor weather, the event will be held in the ACAD Auditorium in Room 150.