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Lessons from war: veterans pass along personal war history to Bigfork students

The Missoulian • November 11, 2004 • Missoula, Montana

by Michael Jamison

Bigfork High School honors veterans with an oral history project and a Veterans Assembly. Oral histories were read for veterans Lawrence Kotecki, Don Togerson, Larry Roedel, William “Lee” Searcy, Kenneth Caverly, and Matthew Saltz. This is the fifth year of the ongoing veterans history project in Bigfork. Fifty-six oral histories have been collected.

Left: William Fratt and his grandson, David Crismore, pause with Fratt’s dog, Lero T. Hager, which he named for one of his World War II “foxhole buddies,” at Fratt’s home near Kalispell on Wednesday. Crismore, a senior at Bigfork High School, interviewed his grandfather about his service as a Marine in World War II as part of the Montana Heritage Project, which is aimed at collecting stories of Montana veterans. Fratt was one of thousands of Marines who in 1943 at the start of the Pacific campaign landed on Tarawa in one of the fiercest Marine battles ever with nearly 3,000 casualties.TOM BAUER/Missoulian

BIGFORK - When we talk about war, especially the history of war, we tend to talk about abstractions.

Tune into the nightly news, drop by a high school history class, and you’ll learn that war is about nations and economies, ideals and cosmologies, concepts like freedom and liberty and power.

The great irony, of course, is that for those directly involved, war is anything but an abstraction; rather, it is about the flesh and blood of humanity, about individual fear and friendship, loss and survival.

It is about people, one at a time.

“There is no glory in war,” said William Fratt. “Anyone who tells you different is wrong. War stories are tough to talk about, but it’s important to tell them and remember them.”

A year ago, Fratt told his story - the story of being a Marine in World War II - to his grandson, a student at Bigfork High School. It was part of the Montana Heritage Project, administered by the state Historical Society and aimed at collecting the individual stories of Montana veterans.

For five years now, Bigfork students have been interviewing veterans, compiling oral histories and recording the stories Fratt says are so important to remember. Then, on Veterans Day, the students and soldiers join for an assembly in the school gymnasium, paying tribute to veterans everywhere.

This year, the program is dedicated to Matthew Saltz, a young Bigfork soldier who became Montana’s first casualty in Iraq.

“It’s an awfully nice program,” Fratt said. “Everyone made us feel real welcome.”

Which is exactly why the program is so important and timely today.

“We have a lot of Americans serving in Iraq,” said Tom Cook, “and we need to help people get ready for their return.”

Cook is public information officer for the state Historical Society and a Marine veteran of the Vietnam War.

“There was no welcome home from Vietnam,” he said, and the lack of community support forced soldiers to “internalize their experiences and bottle it all up.”

“It’s been seething in a lot of people for a long time,” Cook said. “It’s been eating away at people for too long.”

The Heritage Project, he said, provides an outlet for the stories while at the same time teaching teenagers that war is not, in fact, an abstraction.

“The students are 17,” said Bigfork teacher Mary Sullivan. “That’s the same age many of these veterans were when they left for war. These kids are thinking about Iraq. They’re thinking about a draft. The questions they’re asking the veterans seem closer to home than ever.”

And it doesn’t get much closer to home than to meet neighbors who have been there.

“They get to see the individual,” said Dave Bermel, a Marine who fought in Vietnam and participated in the Bigfork program last year. “They hear about the experiences firsthand, and some of them are pretty hairy. I think the kids become aware of what people are willing to do for our country. They learn that freedom isn’t cheap.”

And they learn there’s an unknown depth behind the most familiar of faces.

David Crismore is the grandson of William Fratt; he interviewed his grandpa as part of the Bigfork program.

“I have a much better understanding not just of war, but of my grandfather, too,” Crismore said. “I learned more about him than I ever had.”

But even after hearing those tales of war, young Crismore is considering joining the military.

“I have a huge love for this country,” he said. “It’s a valuable service.”

But so is working for peace, his grandfather said, and he is not alone among veterans in that belief.

Bermel, Fratt and many other veterans who have been interviewed believe the stories of war ultimately send a message about peace.

“There’s so much killing,” Bermel said. “You don’t want war if you can help it. I hope students these days hear the stories and try to think about peaceful solutions first.”

Regardless of an individual student’s political or moral beliefs about war, Sullivan said they all agree that “our veterans need and deserve respect.”

Sullivan came of age in the 1960s, she said, and those times helped form her beliefs about war. Then her mother married a high school sweetheart at age 85, a man who piloted fighter places in World War II.

Sullivan interviewed him, and although he died before the first school program, she included his story nevertheless.

Now, Sullivan said, “I’ve come away with the utmost respect for these people. The kids, too, are very impressed by the stories. It’s really interesting - no one ever talks about war in heroic terms. No one has ever called himself a hero.”

Rather, she said, the veterans have told stories about being scared, about being hurt and cold and lonely, about families back home torn apart by politics and loss.

“It’s very emotional,” said Marcella Sherfy, education director for the state Heritage Project. “It’s difficult and very complex. Telling these stories isn’t easy, and it’s not always easy to listen, either.”

But talking and listening, she said, ultimately leads to compassion and understanding, which is what it takes to create links across the generations and to ensure the welcome home Cook never received.

“I never heard one person say ‘thank you’ when I came home,” Cook said. “All it takes is someone to show a genuine interest.”

Bermel agrees.

“We’re proud of what we’ve done,” he said, “but nobody’s ever asked us about it. It feels good to be asked.”

“My grandson saw a side of grandpa he never knew,” Fratt said of the program. “It brought back some memories, some good, some bad, but it was absolutely rewarding for us both.”

Posted by Michael L Umphrey
on 11/11 at 09:36 PM

Community values armed forces’ contributions

Great Falls Tribune • November 11, 2004 • Great Falls, Montana

by Peter Johnson

Simms High School gave a two-hour presentation in honor of local veterans Wednesday afternoon. Montana International Air Guard presented “Operation Freedom” which explained the history and importance of the American flag.

Memories were rekindled — and created — at a program Simms High School students put on Wednesday for veterans and community residents.

A couple of hundred students and residents filled the school gym, which was decorated in red, white and blue, for the multifaceted show.

When the Simms Choir sang the first verse of “America,” many older audience members joined in.

Government teacher Josh Clixby gave a wide-ranging talk that included memories of what he learned from his late grandfather, a World War II veteran.

Montana Air National Guard members presented a history of the American Flag in what they call “Operation Patriotism.”

Students Heidi Tynes and Chelsey Youngren recapped some of the interviews that Simms students did two years ago with more than 30 area veterans as part of the Montana Heritage Project.

They ranged from Army Air Corps Tech Sgt. Cullen Lee, a World War II prisoner in Germany, to Army veteran Dennis Speer, who talked about the post-traumatic stress that many Vietnam veterans suffered when they returned home.

Afterward, Pete Cummings, 87, an Army combat engineer in the South Pacific during World War II, said he was grateful for neighborhood high school kids who interviewed him two years ago.

“We spent a great evening together talking about my adventures,” he said.

“I think the project interviews were absolutely wonderful,” said Norma Blossom Olsen, who was interviewed about her days as a civilian Navy welder during World War II. The welders squeezed through 18-inch holes wearing leather outfits to make welds in ship bottoms. “Those kids had no idea what we went through.”

The high school students said they enjoyed reviewing the histories their classmates wrote two years ago.

“A lot of ordinary people in small towns like ours did pretty heroic things in wartime that we never realized,” Tynes said.

Simms is one of 11 schools that have taken part in the Montana Heritage Project, administered by the Montana Historical Society. Seven more schools are joining this year.

The project includes taking oral histories of veterans and doing community history research.

All of the students’ research is placed in the Montana Historical Society Archives for use by future generations.

During the 2005-06 school year, the Montana Heritage Project is offering grants of up to $1,000 for high school teachers to get their students involved in researching and saving stories of local veterans and those left behind during the Vietnam War.

The project is funded by the Liz Clairborne and Art Ortenberg Foundation. For more information, call project director Marcella Sherfy at 406-444-1759.

In other area schools:

# Twenty-four juniors at Centerville High are starting a year-long project to interview Vietnam War military veterans, family members left behind and residents who protested the war when they were in college, said history teacher Ted Richards.

This fall the students are learning about the Vietnam War and how to draw interview subjects out with open-ended questions.

They will interview people for their history classes, write essays about what they learned for English classes, and make power point presentations in their computer classes.

# Chester students, who have done some “incredibly interesting” oral histories of veterans over the past several years, are figuring out what sort of community history projects to focus on this year, said English and technology teacher Renee Rasmussen.

Some students could opt to do interviews with Vietnam veterans, she said, but it sometimes takes years for vets to be ready to open up about what they went through.

# Brady students from kindergarten through high school staged a community show for veterans Wednesday, said English teacher Becky Duty.

Grade-school students sang patriotic songs. Middle school kids sang and did skits in a USO-style show. High school students recited poetry, patriotic speeches and essays about what it must be to be a soldier.

Duty said the school is considering doing a Montana Heritage Project.

# Great Falls secondary schools are doing a variety of Veterans Day activities today, said Assistant Superintendent Dick Kuntz.

Students from Skyline Alternative High School made a thank you card and sent it to veterans at the Fort Harrison VA hospital near Helena. They also will watch a movie about World War I and its aftermath and discuss the conflicts in which American veterans have served.

The names of East Middle School teachers who are military veterans will be announced over the loudspeaker and music classes will play the national anthems of America, Canada and Britain. Two U.S. flags that flew over Iraq will be displayed.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey
on 11/11 at 08:51 PM
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