It’s a living history lesson: Hundreds of America’s war heroes – who have served in World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan – will share their service experiences and memories with California high-school students in a celebration of those who fought valiantly for America’s freedoms.
More than 300 men and women from all military branches will mentor juniors May 1 at 8 a.m. in the 6th annual Rancho Cucamonga High School Remembers event.
The tradition is coordinated by U.S. history teachers Aaron Bishop and Robert Sanchez.
“I had six uncles in World War II,” Bishop told WND. “All of them had passed on before I began teaching, so I never had a chance to bring them in and talk to my classes. I did have the experience of listening to their stories, but I didn’t value them then as much as I do now.”
With the encouragement of his wife, Bishop said he visited Veterans of Foreign Wars posts, retirement homes and local neighborhoods looking for World War II veterans to speak to his students.
“Our first year, six years ago, we had about 40 vets,” Bishop recalled. “The first year was fabulous, and we had guys from World War II and Vietnam. It was awesome. It’s grown ever since then. The second year, we had 100 guys and had to move to the gym. The next year it was 150. Then we had 278. This year we’re expecting about 310 vets.”
In his recent WND column, action star Chuck Norris wrote, “As an Air Force veteran myself, I salute Bishop, Sanchez and Rancho Cucamonga High School in California for annually and actively not forgetting about those who serve and the power of their oral history.”
Bishop said the program encourages war veterans to participate. At the event, boy students wear ties and girls wear dresses. The students sit at tables with service members and interview them about their experiences. The students are required to write a one-page essay about their veteran and a detailed thank-you note for their service. Many of the students remain in contact with the veterans throughout the year.
He explained, “I tell the kids, ‘Look past the gray hair. Look past the glasses and slow speech. Look past that, because everything you hear is going to be from the eyes of an 18, 19, 20-year-old kid. Everything you hear. They might forget their wife’s name, but they will not forget the experiences you are about to hear.”
When Bishop invited him, one Vietnam veteran was reluctant to be interviewed at a previous event but agreed to watch the students interact with his fellow war heroes. After the first session, the veteran decided to lead his own interview table.
“He sat down to talk,” Bishop said. “I looked over, and he was just completely emotional. The kids were completely emotional.
“Afterward, he came to me and said, ‘I just want to thank you. I’ve waited 42 years for a ‘Welcome home,’ and your kids have finally given it to me.’”
A second Vietnam veteran had been a high-school quarterback with a new Camaro as he graduated from high school. But all of that would soon change.
Bishop said the man was soon drafted to serve in Vietnam. At the Rancho Remembers event, he told the high school students, ‘There’s no way in the world I would have ever thought I’d be lying in the jungle six months after I graduated, in complete darkness, and having a Viet Cong three feet away from me – and I couldn’t do anything because I couldn’t give up my position.’”
The students see the human side of sacrifice and service to their nation, Bishop explained, adding that Vietnam veterans participate most often because of the way they were treated by their own countrymen when they returned from war.
“These kids are hearing stories from vets getting to the airport, taking off their uniforms, putting them in the trash and putting on regular clothes so they wouldn’t be bugged,” he said.
“One guy said he got home, and his parents weren’t even there to welcome him home. There was a pair of pants, a new shirt, a tie and a note that said, ‘You have a job interview tomorrow at 9 a.m.’ That was it. The parents even wanted to hide it. It’s terrible what those guys went through.”
One year, Bishop noticed a woman in tears, so he asked her what was wrong.
“She told me, ‘I’ve been married to my husband for 40 years. I have not heard one story that he’s told these kids,’” he said.
“Kids need to know what people fought for, why they fought for and who they were. They went to fight to protect what we have. And if you ask any one of those guys, they would all say, ‘I would do it again.’”
Bishop said a man named Bob Pate entered World War II at age 17 and fought in the invasion of Iwo Jima. His job was to run high-octane hoses into Japanese foxholes and ignite them.
“So the kids were talking totally intense,” he said. “Then a kid asked, ‘What did you miss the most?’
“Here’s a total kid question. This stuff isn’t in textbooks. He said he missed his mom.”
When the student asked about the quality of the food, Pate said, “I just wanted a hamburger and a milkshake.”
Bishop explained, “Here he is in World War II with just complete chaos going on, and he’s a kid! The kids love just seeing the human side of everything, because the textbooks give us the causes, effects, the politics, some strategy. But you never get the human story like that. They love seeing that men were willing to fight for this country, and they were just like us.”
Since the program’s inception, 29 of its veterans have passed away. Every time a volunteer dies, Bishop said the coordinators add their name to a list of honor.
“We know these guys aren’t going to be around forever. The statistic is like 1,000 a day that the World War II guys are leaving us,” he said. “I encourage these kids to bring their cameras to take a picture with these guys, because in 10 years they won’t be here, so we have to cherish them. I reiterate to these guys all the time: It’s not about you; it’s about the vets.”
Bishop asked, “How many times does a 90-year-old man get a chance to talk to teenagers who are going to listen? How many times do teenagers nowadays get a chance to talk to a 90-year-old man with so much respect in their eyes?”
Inspired by the veterans’ service and sacrifice, Bishop said, many students have considered serving their country as well.
“They want to join,” he said. “It brings a new awareness about what these guys are fighting for. Education can be so liberal. It’s our fault they bombed us at Pearl Harbor. It’s our fault in Vietnam. It’s our fault, our fault. When they see the human side, they know it wasn’t those guys’ ‘fault.’”
As for mainstream media coverage of the event, Bishop said only a few local outlets have covered it.
“I am so discouraged with the media because I have told them, ‘Look what we’re doing! There’s something good going on with education. There’s something patriotic going on here. Kids are responding,’” he said. “It’s not, ‘Hate the system!’ It’s not politics. It’s not that.
“I’ve emailed all the TV stations, including NBC and ABC and all the others. Nothing.
Bishop said when he finally reached a reporter, the news organization refused to cover the event, arguing, “It’s nothing.”
“I said, ‘What are you talking about? So what if I told you there’s going to be a huge race riot in our gym next Wednesday at 9 a.m.?’
“He said, ‘You’d have everybody there!’”
Undeterred by the lack of media support, Bishop said the program relies on student volunteers and sponsorships to keep the annual event going.
“The district doesn’t give us any money,” he said. “The county doesn’t give us money. The school doesn’t give us money. Nobody gives us any money. So all these kids chip in $5, and we get some local donors and sponsorships. It’s all self-funded.
“We have the interviews, and then we have a fried chicken lunch. All the vets like that, and the kids get to share that with them at the end of the program. It’s all set up by the students. It’s all kids who want to do it for the vets.”
While there are several goals of the program, Bishop said there’s one major lesson he hopes the students learn: “If someone is wearing the [war veteran] hat, go up and just say, ‘Thank you.’ They don’t need a conversation. Half the time, they don’t want one. But just say, ‘Thank you.’”
As a U.S. history teacher, Bishop is confident that the program is breathing new life into his students’ understanding of America’s past.
“We can’t miss out on the opportunity to let these teenagers talk to people who walked and lived and breathed history,” he said. “It’s the most rewarding thing, educationally, that I do.”