Story by S.L. Hansen
LINCOLN (SNR) - When Patriot Productions of Omaha sent off their last Korean War Honor Flight Monday, March 24, middle school students from St. Mary School in Lincoln were a featured part of the event.
It all started on Veteran’s Day last November.
With their teachers, Scott Bendler and Christy TenHulzen, the St. Mary students walked across K Street to the State Capitol to see the unveiling of a plaque honoring all the state’s Medal of Honor servicemen and women, and to meet Medal of Honor recipient Charles Hagemeister.
Bill and Evonne Williams of Patriot Productions were also there for the event. The Williamses have organized several Honor Flights, free trips for World War II and Korean War veterans to see the war memorials in Washington, D.C.
Bendler had met the couple back in 2009, when he was one of three teachers honored with the VFW National Citizenship education award. He was teaching social studies at a Lincoln public school, where he had organized a project called “Take a Vet to School.” The Williamses were recognized at the same ceremony.
So, at the Medal of Honor plaque unveiling, Bendler reintroduced himself. After a short conversation, he committed the students to writing letters to Korean War veterans who were scheduled to take the next Honor Flight.
Meanwhile, Williams was coming up with other ways to involve the students. He offered to pay for a bus to take the St. Mary students up to Omaha for the send-off dinner, where they would lead the Pledge of Allegiance and sing the National Anthem.
“I think he first saw the multi-cultural mix [of the student body],” Bendler said, explaining why the students caught Williams’ eye, “[but] their respectful behavior during and after the ceremony was probably what sealed it.”
Back in the classroom, Bendler adjusted his curriculum to incorporate the Korean War in social studies and reading, writing letters to veterans and composing poetry. In art class, facilitated by professional artist Liz Shea, the students created abstract works of art about the effects of war.
“I took every opportunity to educate students about those who sacrifice everything to protect our country and the realities of war,” Bendler said. “I tried to tie this to their lives and what is happening in the world today.”
He added, “I also tie the Catholic principles of social justice, fairness and humility to what we discuss and do.”
Meanwhile, Mrs. TenHulzen brought the topic into religious education.
“We have had many discussions about ‘just wars,’” she said. “We discussed ‘respect of authority,’ and who gives the government authority. We talked about the effects of war on the soldiers, and the responsibilities that they have to their country while holding true to their faith.”
Bendler received regular calls and emails from Mr. Williams during the next four months. A coach bus was rented. Lunch was donated. An afternoon at an indoor waterpark was paid for.
“I became almost overwhelmed with his generosity and sincere efforts to make this a great experience not only for the veterans, but for the St. Mary students, too,” Bendler said.
The gifts extended to the rest of the student body when Williams purchased uniform shirts embroidered with “St. Mary School” for every child, teacher and staff member in the school.
The sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders were proud to have the opportunity to go to the Honor Flight send-off.
“When they were told that they were going to be able to serve the veterans in this experience, you could see how excited they were to give something back to them,” TenHulzen said.
On March 24, after Mass at St. Mary Church, a bus ride and an afternoon at the waterpark, the St. Mary students helped welcome the veterans to the Ramada Plaza, where the send-off dinner was held.
“After all they’ve done for our country… it was very exciting meeting the veterans,” said seventh-grader David Hanzl.
Students held open doors, pushed wheelchairs and oxygen tanks, fetched chairs for those who couldn’t stand in the long line… and greeted every veteran with, “Thank you for your service, and God bless you!”
Each veteran also received one of the students’ poems, personal letters or original artwork.
Then the students, wearing their new shirts from Mr. Williams, spread out on stage and led the Pledge of Allegiance for the veterans, followed by the National Anthem.
“When we went to sit back down, several of the Veterans stopped the students - and me! - to shake their hands and to tell them ‘Thank you’, some with tears in their eyes.” TenHulzen said.
Sindy Baldwin, whose daughter Nevaeh is in the sixth grade class said, “I wanted her to have this experience so she understands the importance how much other men and women are willing to sacrifice… She said it felt like a part of history.”
“It will unquestionably help them to be better citizens and human beings,” Bendler added. “I’m incredibly proud to be the teacher of students whose character has earned them these opportunities, and to be associated with men and women who have been willing to make the ultimate sacrifice for others.”
He and TenHulzen are grateful to Bill and Evonne Williams and VFW Post 131 for giving the students this once-in-a-lifetime experience.
“I was lucky to be in the right place at the right time,” Bendler said. “As Bill Williams said, ‘God winks.’”