It was an opportunity for them to talk about their military service, but the stories told by veterans to students at West Seneca East High School on Friday also touched on American history and personal growth.
Ten men and one woman – veterans of the conflicts in the Middle East, the Vietnam and Korean wars, and World War II – participated in the 10th annual Hometown Heroes Day.
Coordinated by school librarian Sandra Eichelberger, the program allows veterans to meet with small groups of students in the school library. Instead of having veterans at a podium, “We invite them to sit at a table and share their stories on a more intimate level,” Eichelberger said.
Eichelberger said she never heard the stories of her late father, Russell Jakel, who was an Army veteran of World War II. Her brother, Craig Jackel, also served in the Army; he died in a helicopter crash in South Vietnam in 1974.
During the course of three 40-minute sessions Friday, the veterans met with hundreds of students as part of their social studies, English and foreign language classes. “It really is a universal thing that can tie into all kinds of things in the curriculum,” Eichelberger said.
Russell Schober, of West Seneca, an Army veteran who served in Europe during World War II, has participated every year. Sitting in a wheelchair Friday, with his wife, Gert, by his side, he was positioned between a table laden with memorabilia and maps highlighting his travels.
His wife asked him prepared questions about his service – to keep him on track, she explained – but Schober wanted to tell his own stories, in his own time.
He recounted the day Japanese forces bombed the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor.
Schober said he was out for a walk near his West Seneca home when a friend told him the news. “When I went inside I couldn’t believe it – Pearl Harbor was bombed,” he said.
“It was a Sunday. It was December. It was a bright day,” he said. One of those days “you squinted from the reflection of the snow.”
Jack Michel, of Snyder, and Greg Cain, of West Seneca, served with the Marines and Air Force, respectively, during the Vietnam War.
Veterans of that era returned home to face protests and scorn. A student asked if they were angry or disappointed by the lack of support.
“I personally was disappointed because we did our best, but the government really didn’t back us up,” Cain said. “I was angry for a long time. Fortunately, I got involved with some people who had similar feelings as I did.”
“The more you talk about it, the less anxiety, anguish you go through,” Cain said.
Michel admitted that it took him much longer to accept the help that’s available. “I decided not to get involved with anyone for 35 years; I was angry for a long time,” he said.
Val Mozdziak, of Cheektowaga, served with the Army during the Korean War. He recounted experiences while being stationed at various military bases around the United States, including Fort Sill in Oklahoma.
The year was 1951, Mozdziak recalled, when he was admonished upon walking out of a restroom. A looming figure asked if he could read.
The restroom was designated for “Colored Men Only.”
Having grown up among blacks, Mozdziak had never thought of racial differences that way. “We were classmates; we were friends,” he said.
Patrick Belmonte and Jeanna Marrano, of North Chili, are a married couple who have service in Iraq in common. But they didn’t meet until they were back stateside.
A 1998 graduate of West Seneca East, Marrano described herself as the kind of kid who didn’t really like high school.
“It’s not how you start off in life,” she told students. She said what they make of themselves is far more important.
Marrano said her decision to join the Army came, in part, from not being able to afford the four-year college of her choice. She was deployed to Iraq in 2003.
“It was really a culture shock,” she said. “From having everything a hop, skip and a jump away to having nothing at all.”
Like a shower, a cellphone, a computer. The only way to communicate with people back home was with a pen and paper, she said.
“That’s when you really are tested ... how strong a person you are,” Marrano said.
Having temporarily lost her passion for the teenage dream of working in law enforcement, she said she got into human services work before signing up for another six years in the Army.
Now she works for the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office, where she urges criminals to look to the future, as well.
“I tell them: Don’t worry about what you did when you were 21,” she said.
Worry about what you’re going to do after getting out of jail, she tells them.