Stories of Life and War: What Veterans Needed to Say and Students Needed to Hear

By Matilda Kreider

While most Connecticut high school students were sleeping in, BHS students got the opportunity to “experience history firsthand” as BHS history teacher and Gulf War veteran Dave Gruendel put it.

That was the central message for many of the speakers, including senior Romero Wells and BHS Spanish teacher and Afghanistan veteran Andres Wullaert, at Wednesday’s 18th annual Veterans Appreciation Day assembly. As the day went on, students participated in conversations with veterans from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, Gulf War, Vietnam War, Korean War, and World War II and from all branches of the military.

DSC_0738From 96-year-old World War II nurse Helen Ruthven to recent BHS graduate and two-time Purple Heart recipient Tyler Caporale, students were able to hear from a variety of perspectives and get some valuable advice.

Korean War veteran and Purple Heart recipient Clarence Hook shared his view that joining the military is a great option for young men and women unsure of what path to follow in life and can help keep youth out of trouble. Through his perspectives on life and war, Caporale reminded us to be grateful for the lives we have. Little day-to-day struggles can seem very significant when you’ve lived a comfortable life, but Caporale has a new view of life after his tours. After seeing real suffering, hearing people complain about their mixed up Dunkin’ Donuts orders now makes him laugh.

Most of the veterans emphasized that going to the war changed them, sometimes in good ways and sometimes not. Often the defining factor between positive and negative changes was which war the veteran served in. For example, World War II veterans were regarded as heroes because the enemy they had been fighting was clear, but Vietnam War and Korean War veterans did not have the same experience. Every year, it is the veterans of those two wars who jump at the opportunity to share their stories but also seem reserved and unsure. Even after all of these years, they still are struggling to come to terms with that part of their lives because it was a difficult time to be in the military.

That’s one reason why what BHS does is so important; it gives these men and women the heroes’ welcome they never received forty years ago.

Though many students were able to meet with the veterans, some students expressed disappointment that their teachers chose to continue with classroom learning rather than allowing them to attend the talks. “Is it really better for me to do classwork on this day rather than learn about our history from people who were there?” wondered senior Kim Klarman. A common sentiment was that students were learning no more about veterans in school than they would have at home because not all teachers facilitated the day’s events. Perhaps an improvement going forward would be a revised schedule that allowed more students to engage in the discussions.

Overall, students were grateful for this opportunity, as the time we have with these heroes is invaluable. As one veteran mentioned, we lose 400 World War II veterans every day. These people lived in a time that we’ve only read about in books, and there’s nothing quite like getting to hear their stories so animatedly and with so much emotion.

For all students got out of the day, the veterans gained just as much. To people like Korean War veteran Bill Farrell, what we do for the veterans every year “is a nicer reception than [they] ever received coming home.”