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Meeting WW2 Veterans Changes Students’ Lives

By Gerald D. Swick
11/4/2009 • HistoryNet Interviews Extras, Interviews

College of the Ozarks students on Omaha Beach, Normandy. The Greatest Generations Foundation arranges for students to travel with WWII vets to old battlefields.
College of the Ozarks students on Omaha Beach, Normandy. The Greatest Generations Foundation arranges for students to travel with WWII vets to old battlefields.

In an interview on HistoryNet, Timothy Davis, founder of the Greatest Generations Foundation, tells about how the organization pairs World War II veterans with college students on trips the foundation sponsors to allow the vets to revisit their old battlefields.

For the veterans, these trips can bring closure. For the students, meeting these old warriors and hearing their stories while walking the ground where they fought can be life-changing.

College student Isaac Hatton to Mr. Davis after the June 2009 trip to describe his newfound appreciation for World War II veterans:

College student James McGoodgin with WWI vet Thomas Kilker
College student James McGoodgin with WWI vet Thomas Kilker
“Thanks for the incredible experience. It was life-changing.

“Last week, I was in Wal-Mart and saw an old man in a wheel chair, missing both of his legs. I noticed he had a Navy hat on so I went over to ask him if he had served in World War II and to shake his hand. He was looking at toothpaste. It took a while to get his attention because he was a bit deaf, but I was finally able to get his attention and asked him about the war. Well, it turned out he had fought in the Pacific and he started telling me his whole story.

“I sat down on the floor there in the Wal-Mart toothpaste aisle for about half an hour as he talked about his experience and about his life after the war. People kept walking past staring at us. It was brilliant! His name is John Perona. He knew that he killed Japanese because he was a gunner on a ship. That still bothers him to this day. Near the end of our conversation he said that it really helped to talk about it, so I was just so thankful to have been there right at that moment. Before the trip to Normandy, I would have walked right past an old man in a wheelchair with a Navy hat on. Now there is no way I would miss the opportunity to thank him, even if I have to shout to get his attention!”

Two students were paired with each veteran to learn his story and the history of the battles. In her journal, undergraduate student Stephanie Ebling wrote a portrait of the men.

“It is clear to me that today, they are at their strongest. I realize something very unexpected. They are greater men now than when they jumped out of a plane or charged off of a Higgins boat 65 years ago. For although their bodies are slowly failing, what is left is a priceless outcome that must certainly come from such a lasting sacrifice – gentle, selfless strength.”

College student Heather Zandbergen visits a U.S. cemetery in Holland during a trip with the Greatest Generations Foundation.
College student Heather Zandbergen visits a U.S. cemetery in Holland during a trip with the Greatest Generations Foundation.

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