Veterans share their stories of service and sacrifice with students

6:44 PM, Nov 8, 2012   |    comments
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BIDDEFORD, Maine (NEWS CENTER) -- Veterans past and present answered questions and told stories to social sciences students, sharing their tales of service and sacrifice in advance of Veteran's Day on Monday.

"I hope that they learn that there is a personalized element to history," explained Andrew Reddy, head of the social science department at Biddeford High School.  "It is the story part of history that they are learning, that there were personal events that occurred, it is not just the larger than life figures that are in history."

Leon Stawasz was just 19 years old in 1943 when he was drafted to serve his country.  Stawasz had quit his job as a sheet metal worker in anticipation of being called upon to take part in World War II.

He says he scored well in his entry testing and was offered the opportunity to enroll in officer's training school, but he had other plans.

"I want to fight! I want to fight!" Stawasz told the Army.  "So I ended up going to basic training - I didn't know my left foot from my right foot - and all of a sudden you are going to gunnery school," he recalled.

Stawasz says he found that amusing, because initially he wanted to be a pilot, but because he needed glasses to see well, he didn't qualify for flight school.  Now the Army was going to make him a gunner.

He says he knew nothing about guns, but wanted to fly so he would always have a ride where ever he was going.  He ended up being assigned as a gunner on a B-17 and was shipped over to Europe.  He says he'd never been in a plane before, let alone overseas.

He and his crew mates conducted a dozen successful missions, but number 13 wasn't so lucky.  To this day he says he still doesn't know what happened to the plane, all he knows is that when the pilot told the men to jump he knew it was time to go.

When he landed on the ground safe and sound he was captured by the Germans.

"I was a POW until the British rescued me in May of the following year," said Stawasz.  "I had almost a year in the POW camp."

Ironically enough for Stawasz, the last three months of captivity were spent marching back and forth across Poland.  Stawasz says the commander of the German unit that held him prisoner refused to take the men to a concentration camp as ordered, knowing the POWs would be killed, so instead he marched them around while trying to find the right group of Allied Forces to surrender to.

"I went down from about 140 pounds to about 98 pounds," he said.  "You could play xylophone on my ribs."

After the war, Stawasz says he goofed around a bit, enrolled in med school and then ultimately became an investigator for the Veteran's Administration.

He says there were many aspects of war that were unpleasant, but that he enjoyed his time spent serving his country.  He says the relationships he forged with his crew members and others he met along the way are something he cherishes to this day.

While Stawasz story of being captured generated the most questions from students, he was not the only service member who addressed the group of roughly 100 students.  Veteran's from Vietnam, the Gulf War and several other conflicts also shared stories and answered questions.

Andrew Reddy says it is a great opportunity for the kids to connect with members of their community and learn more about people that they may pass on the street without realizing what they have done to help our country.

"I think the purpose is to kind of educate our students to the importance and meaning of this holiday that is coming up," said Reddy.  "It is not just a day off from school, but they should know that it is celebrating the veterans who served, and who are still alive, and how they should be honored and respected and celebrated."

Time Warner Cable helped organize the event as part of their 4th annual "Take a Veteran to School" program.  This year Time Warner plans to bring veterans to 16 Maine schools as part of the program.

NEWS CENTER

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