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Teaching the younger generation the true meaning of Veterans Day

November 11, 2003|by BOB MAGINNIS

When Donna Pile-Allen retired from the Washington County school system in June of 2002, she told The Herald-Mail's Pepper Ballard that when the next school year began she'd be sitting on the beach reading a novel and listening to the surf.

But a combination of circumstances brought her back to the classroom where she's once again used the experiences of America's veterans to teach students how to write and research, as they learn about the sacrifices made by men and woman in uniform.

A West Virginia resident now, Pile-Allen had signed up as a substitute teacher in Berkeley County when the school called and said that a second-grade teacher had developed breast cancer.

All of sudden the one or two days a week that she'd hoped for became a full-time job. And though she hadn't worked with second-graders before, she decided to teach them about veterans and assign them to make cards for Veterans Day.

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Pile-Allen said she'd never been to the Veterans Medical Center previously, but she decided to go and distribute the cards her students had made.

"I handed them the cards and some of these guys cried and that just blew me away," she said.

After that she had students make the veterans cards for all occasions - including Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter.

The teacher she'd been subbing for eventually recovered and Pile-Allen bid her young students farewell.

Then came a call asking her if she could be a long-term substitute at Shepherdstown Middle School.

When the teacher she was subbing for resigned to take a job in another county and Pile-Allen applied for the post, and was a little bit surprised when she got it.

The position involved teaching English and social studies and so when it came time to create writing assignments, Pile-Allen went back to a topic she'd used previously to motivate students - the experiences of America's veterans.

She piqued their interest by telling them that she would be away from school for two days to travel to Tacoa, Ga., where her father, now deceased, had trained with the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 101st Airborne.

Each day the trainees, wearing their combat boots and a full pack, had to run up and down Curahee Mountain, which is about a six-mile course.

She also showed them Part 1 of the movie "Band of Brothers," then started them on doing their own research.

They began by going onto the World Wide Web, where they were told to find answers to three questions:

- What is the purpose of Veterans Day?

- What's the history of Veterans Day?

- How has it changed over the years?

"They each printed out a couple of articles and highlighted a couple of sentences in each," she said.

Then, using a device called a "graphic organizer," the students culled out the facts they would need to write a paragraph on the topic.

The next step was a longer essay, based on interviews with actual veterans who visited Pile-Allen's reading and language arts classes.

"One was our school nurse, Cindy Feeser, who was a veteran not only of the Army but of the Air Force, retiring as a major," Pile-Allen said.

Others included her husband, Richard Allen, Del. John Doyle and James "Dixie" Wiltshire.

Students had to interview the visitors to find out how military life differed from being a civilian, the benefits of being in the service, the guests' attitude about the draft and an outstanding experience the guest had while serving.

Student Emily Spickler described Wiltshire's outstanding experience on a cold night in the California desert in this way:

"One night Mr. Wiltshire and another serviceman were assigned to guard a road, so they went onto a hill and they tried to dig a hole so that they could lie down and guard the road at the same time. Well it turned out there were scorpions, rattlesnakes and bugs everywhere! They were so scared that they ran down the hill and into a tent where all of the other men assigned to guard were. They stayed in there the entire night and never got caught."

Pile-Allen's classes have also made Veterans Day cards, a batch of which she'll distribute today.

Asked what her students had learned about America's veterans, Pile-Allen said that "they were surprised by the experiences of the relatives they had who had served."

Pile-Allen said that "one little girl talked to her grandfather and he shared with her things she didn't know, things he had really never talked about that much before."

That's been my experience in interviewing combat veterans. Most of them, even those who've done extraordinary things, do not think of themselves as extraordinary people. They just believe they're folks who answered the call and did what they felt they had to do.

They remember the good times, the camaraderie of being in a unit that becomes just as much a family as one's blood relatives. And just like in a real family, when one of the members is hurt or dies, they're mourned and not forgotten.

This is the third time I've interviewed Pile-Allen and she asked me if I could do this one without using her name.

"It's really about the kids," she said.

She's correct. I wish there were a way for everyone who's reading this column to see the cards the students made for those hospitalized veterans. As a parent I know there's a difference between an assignment that's done just to get it finished and one the student puts his or her heart into.

These cards and these essays were done with a lot of heart, by young people who've discovered that freedom isn't just something that arrived at their homes unsolicited, like a piece of mail, but something that was earned by America's veterans. From hearing the veterans' stories firsthand and thinking about them, they've developed a special appreciation of what being a veteran means.

As Emily Spickler wrote:

"Honor this Veterans Day by going up to a veteran and telling him or her 'thank you.' In conclusion, the world wouldn't be the same without veterans and we are very appreciative of them."

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