There are lessons learned in war that can’t be put into a textbook.
The bond two veterans share from the experience of combat is a chemistry all its own.
Middle school students saw this Thursday in their walk with Dominique Brown, a former Army sergeant now living in Chambersburg.
Brown was among 50 veterans from different eras and service branches who participated in a new program at the U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center outside Carlisle.
Called “Walk with a Veteran,” the program gave students the opportunity to interact with men and women who served their country in peace and war.
“It enabled them to develop a deeper appreciation for the role of our veterans and the value of service and sacrifice,” said Jeff Hawks, education director of the Army Heritage Center Foundation, the nonprofit organization established to support the development of AHEC.
“Our hope is the students go away inspired to learn more about history, but also to find ways to serve their communities,” Hawks said, noting that military service is just one option.
About 220 students from Perry County, Chambersburg and Yellow Breeches Education Center were divided into groups and led around by veterans on a tour of the Army Heritage Trail and of the exhibits on display in the main building on Thursday.
Prior to Thursday, Brown never met the Navy veteran of the Vietnam War he was partnered with to guide a group of students. But almost right away students noticed how the two men clicked and were talking like best friends within minutes.
There were four decades of separation between the veteran who served in Southeast Asia and Brown, who served two tours in Iraq as an infantryman assigned to convoy escort duty with the 82nd Airborne Division.
“We really don’t know each other,” Brown had to tell the students. “Combat and war just bonds you together. It’s something you can’t put into a textbook.”
This real world experience was a common theme among the students, teachers and veterans touched by a program initiated by Susan Shern through conversations she had with Hawks.
Shern works in the Mechanicsburg office of Humana, a Medicare insurance company with ties to veterans. Humana sponsored Thursday’s event with support from Giant Foods and the Hoffman Funeral Home.
The daughter of a Vietnam War Air Force veteran, she was concerned about how students were being taught history. “I thought it was important for kids to get together with veterans,” Shern said. “It is much better to learn from the sources than it is to read it. They can ask questions. It makes it a lot more personable.”
Before Thursday, Sean Scott, 13, an eighth-grader at Chambersburg Middle School, said he thought almost everyone who served in the military saw combat. During the walk, he learned of sacrifices made in war and peace.
The exhibits shown by the veterans made an impression on Scott. He saw how doughboys in the trenches of World War I used periscopes to scout out the no-man’s land for enemies. He found out that men called Tunnel Rats used to crawl underground in Vietnam in search of bunkers.
“It has been a really fun experience,” Scott said. “I learned a lot. This place takes learning to a whole other level. It’s really interactive. There are so many exhibits.”
When classmate Noelle Wheeler arrived at AHEC Thursday, she didn’t know there are five service branches and her knowledge was sketchy about World War I and Vietnam. But the best lessons were learned from the interactions her group had with their tour guides.
“It’s nice to have someone who was there to explain what they went through,” Wheeler said.
The entire eighth-grade class of West Perry Middle School made the trip Thursday to AHEC. For Theresa Snare the teaching moment for her students were the stories shared by the veterans.
“They are talking to people who actually experienced history,” Snare said. “They are not just looking at pictures and reading about it. They get to actually hear the real-life experiences. It’s just much better.”
Long before Michael O’Brien was superintendent of West Perry School District, he was an Air Force veteran who later taught eighth-grade students. He saw the value in the “Walk with a Veteran” program.
“It’s extremely important our children understand the history of our country and the sacrifices our veterans make every day to keep us safe and free,” O’Brien said.
Vietnam War veteran Joe Boslet of Harrisburg was a counter-intelligence agent and Vietnam language specialist stationed near the Cambodian border from October 1970 to October 1971.
During that time, Boslet helped to coordinate a network of operatives who worked in the field to kill or capture North Vietnamese agents. At one point, the enemy had the equivalent of an $800 bounty on Boslet’s head. “I didn’t want anyone to collect on that,” he said.
As a volunteer with the program, Boslet had the opportunity to not only share the common experiences of soldiers coping with hardship, but to go “off script” and describe to the students the close relationships he developed with the South Vietnamese agents and their families who had to flee for their lives after Saigon fell.
“I can tell them things maybe a little bit more personal that don’t show up in a book,” Boslet said. He related stories of how soldiers in the field developed such a strong bond of mutual respect and reliance upon each other that they would take a bullet for a buddy.
“I do a lot of school programs,” Boslet said. “I talk to students about how important it is for people to work together and how critical it is to give a little bit of yourself to get something back. You can’t be taking all the time.”
For Dominique Brown, there was at least one situation where he had to give the students a reality check. When one of them expressed enthusiasm about training to be a sniper, Brown reminded them of the reality of war and of the post-traumatic stress disorder many veterans have to cope with.
“It’s not an Xbox game. … It’s not ‘Call of Duty.’ … It’s real life,” he told them. “It’s totally different when you take a human life. They have to understand that.”