WELLSBURG - Almost 40 years later, talking about his experiences in Vietnam and upon returning home still brings Jim Davis to tears.
Davis, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran of the Vietnam War, was among six local veterans who joined Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., at Brooke High School Monday for "Take a Veteran to School Day."
Rockefeller, a member of the Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs, helped launch the program throughout the state last year.
Photo by Ian Hicks
U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller, left, addresses Brooke High School students Monday during a “Take a Veteran to School Day” event as Vietnam veteran Jim Davis listens.
The event brought together veterans from several branches of the military who served in combat from World War II to Operation Iraqi Freedom.
"We were the 'baby killers,'" Davis said of the volatile reaction by protesters to Vietnam soldiers when they returned home. And with the U.S. currently embroiled in another divisive conflict, Davis urged the 40 or so students in attendance to write a different story this time around.
"Do not let that happen today ... when you see a veteran, welcome them back with open arms."
Warwood native Tom Innocenti recalled excitement rather than fear as a boy in the U.S. Army preparing to enter the Korean War - an experience he said robbed him of his innocence.
"My biggest fear was that the war would be over before I got there," he said. "But that's how it is when you're young."
Looking back, however, Innocenti said "the experience was wonderful."
"I am a member of the most exclusive fraternity in the world," he said of being a military veteran.
Jeremy Harrison is a veteran of both Operation Desert Storm and the current war in Iraq. He told students there was a "battalion of angels" watching over his unit as they built a bridge - under fire - to replace one blown up by Iraqi soldiers.
Today's youth, he said, can learn much from the motivation that drives our military to answer the call to serve their country.
"There's something inside that tells them they need to do something greater than what they are," Harrison said. "That's a great goal in life."
Also on hand to share their stories were John Chernenko, a U.S. Army veteran of World War II and ex-POW who fought in the Battle of the Bulge; Bill Harris, a U.S. Navy veteran of World War II; and Gene Camilletti, who was trained as a medic in the U.S. Air Force during the Korean War.
Rockefeller, who noted there are 178,000 military veterans in West Virginia alone, said he can't think of a better way to observe Veterans Day, which is Wednesday, than to honor the veterans in attendance and reach out to them.
"I think we didn't do well by our veterans for a long time," he said, pointing out that the availability of technology has made war "reality television" for this generation, something he believes has changed our attitude toward veterans for the better. "We should be thinking about veterans every day."
Rockefeller said he enjoys sitting down with veterans for a few hours at a time - just him, with no members of the media or his staff present - and listening to what they have to say. Rockefeller said we as a society need to open ourselves up and really let these veterans' stories sink in.
"You can't accomplish the world in just an hour and a half," he said, "but it's a start."
He said events such as Monday's are unique because it's typical for veterans to be reluctant to share details of the life-altering experiences they went through. He said Chernenko, a man he's known for years, is a perfect example.
"He never once told me he was in the Battle of the Bulge," Rockefeller said, noting that battle often is described as the Gettysburg of World War II. "I know his kids, I know his grandkids - he never told me."
Brooke High School was the kickoff site for this year's Take a Veteran to School Day program, created by the History! channel and sponsored by the West Virginia Cable Telecommunications Association. A dozen more schools statewide will participate in similar programs through Nov. 19.