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Students get veterans perspective of military past
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Centennial Arts Academy fifth graders Jack Thompson, left, and Spencer Sumner check out Army uniforms from the Vietnam War on display at the Northeast Georgia History Center. - photo by Tom Reed

Sid Steele pointed out the military relics, including a Japanese flag captured during World War II, and explained their history.

But he was more than just an ordinary tour guide to the group of Centennial Arts Academy fifth-graders visiting the Northeast Georgia History Center at Brenau University Tuesday.

"When Pearl Harbor happened on a Sunday, I was in the eighth grade, not much older than you," he said.

The next day, his teacher brought in a radio and gave students the option of going to lunch or listening to President Franklin D. Roosevelt addressing Congress.

"That's when the president asked Congress to declare war on Japan, and I stayed and listened. ... My teacher enlisted and he went off to war. The rest of us grew up during the war."

The visit by 132 Centennial students was part of the history center's weeklong celebration of veterans, with Veterans Day on Thursday.

The center is holding tours for student groups, featuring displays of military artifacts and memorabilia and appearances by the veterans. Also, veterans are visiting schools.

All totaled, the history center hopes to reach some 3,000 area students, said Scott Ballard, a volunteer and one of the event's organizers.

Steele, who served in the U.S. Army from 1950 to 1974 and now is a resident of Lanier Village Estates in North Hall, was happy to oblige.

"I think it helps fulfill their education and hopefully makes them more patriotic," he said.

Dallas Thompson, a Centennial teacher who coordinated the school's visit, said students will study World War II in January.

The history center visit will give them "some background knowledge to hook their new stuff onto," she said. "It's nice to have this beforehand, a real concrete experience."

She said Centennial had received an e-mail about the history center's veterans program.

"I thought it would be really neat to have some hands-on experiences with this stuff, because it's not going to be here all year," Thompson said.

Gainesville resident Bill Vance, who served in the Navy during World War II and served in the Army from 1951 to 1975, gave the students a tour of the center's American Freedom Garden.

He said he believed the school visits are important because they show "the kids there have been a lot of sacrifices of the military, those who lost their life, as well as those who served our armed forces for freedom."

Vance, now 82, also served in Korea and Vietnam wars.
"They wanted to call me up for the Gulf War. I said, ‘You're joking me,' " he said.

Several students asked the veterans questions about their service.

Veronica Nash, 10, talked with Vance for a short while.

"I think it's really cool meeting the veterans who fought for us," she said. "It's really touching to me because my (grandfather) was in World War II and he's still alive to this day."

Alan Ruiz, also 10, said, "It's just amazing that these people who served in World War II are still here. That was a long time ago."

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