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Hot chocolate and heroes: Students and veterans talk about service

The American flag. (U.S. Air Force Photo/Master Sgt. Scott T. Sturkol)

At tables in St. Michael’s Recreation Hall, veterans talked with students and parents about serving their country.

Mady Miller, an eighth grader, shared a table with a veteran of Vietnam.

“Just because he was there, he doesn’t want people to look different at him,” Mady said.

Avery Stefanik talked with a veteran of the Korean War.

“He said while fighting, he had a struggle with the weather — how cold it was,” Avery said.

It was cold, too, in Freeland on Friday evening but students and veterans still went to the hall, where they sipped cocoa and coffee and snacked on desserts while they talked.

Called Hot Chocolate with Heroes, the night out was the idea of Nicole Meckes, who wanted to bring together veterans with her history students from Freeland Elementary/Middle School.

“What better way to bring history and experiences to light than with someone who actually shaped history,” Meckes said.

For the night, St. Michael’s donated the hall, Carone’s Market sent cupcakes and Meckes baked cookies.

A number of former service members offered to speak, but then Meckes had to call out reserves.

Seven of the veterans originally set to attend developed flu symptoms.

Meckes and Gerald Gaffney, commander of the Freeland post of Veterans of Foreign Wars and one of the casualties of the flu, worked the telephones to enlist more service people.

Despite temperatures in single digits, 17 veterans attended along with 42 students and 50 parents.

Students asked why veterans signed up, what basic training was like, where veterans traveled and what lessons they got from the service.

Tony Ferreira of Freeland said the Navy sent him to Orlando, Florida for three months of boot camp in the summer of 1975.

“Being a Yankee going to Florida, I lost 65 pounds. It was brutal,” Ferreira said.

Working conditions stayed hot aboard the USS Bryce Canyon, based in Hawaii, where he labored in the engine room or at evaporators that desalinized drinking water for his shipmates.

Ferreira said students were interested in his story.

“They listened. They asked a lot of questions,” he said.

He suggested they consider learning a trade before they graduate from high school.

“Not everybody is meant for college. You go into the service, you’re going to learn a trade,” he said.

As a Snipe or machinist’s mate in the Navy, Ferreira mastered a trade that eventually took him to the Army.

As a civilian hired at Tobyhanna Army Depot, Ferreira figures he worked in every shop at the depot. He also traveled to other nations while setting up communications equipment.

Although he retired from the depot 10 years ago, he remains active with the workers’ union, a role that will take him to Harrisburg and Washington, D.C. this week.

Meckes said Ferreira is a friend of her husband, but she met other veterans who are parents of her students at the hall, Some of them agreed to tell their stories after they arrived with their children.

One mother joined the military during the Gulf War era soon after her family immigrated to the United States. She thought the service offered her a good financial opportunity and said it made her a stronger person, Meckes said.

The discussions, Meckes thinks, led students to look differently at their parents and neighbors.

“Tiny little Freeland has these people,” Meckes said. “This man who lives down the road is the same type of person who they heard about in their class.”

Mady, who president of Students Against Drunk Driving, a club that Meckes advises, said the evening gave her an understanding of the veterans’ perspectives.

“It makes me sit there and think about how war impacted our lives … Where would we be without some of them serving for us?” she said. “I feel like the military and the Army and all of that is harder than anyone says. You have to make a commitment for yourself and … to others.”

Avery won locally and took second prize statewide in a VFW contest for an essay she wrote about appreciating veterans.

“I feel very honored what they did for us and their country,” she said. “It makes me feel really good that they went and fought for our country and our freedom.”


(c) 2023 the Standard-Speaker

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