Jan Larsen served as a generator operator and mechanic in the Army during a tour with the DaNang Signal Company, part the the 37th Signal Battalion, in Vietnam, when he heard the news of U.S. astronauts landing on the moon in 1969.
On Friday, he showed students in the Masuk High School media center a photo of him as a young man in uniform, holding up the issue of the Pacific Stars and Stripes newspaper. The headline of the lead story said: “A MOONWALK! U.S. leaves its mark on history as Neal ‘leaps for mankind.’”
That was 53 years ago.
Larsen, a retired teacher who taught in Monroe public schools for 35 years, was among a group of veterans visiting Masuk for its Veterans Day program. They shared stories of their experiences serving in the U.S. armed forces and answered students’ questions in the library, as groups of students stopped in over several hours.
“We were near the beach. We loved to go swimming,” Larsen said of where he was stationed. “You had to have somebody go with you.”
Larsen showed students a photo of one of the men in his company surfing.
“I wasn’t a good surfer. I would sit on a blanket with my M-16, so the other guys could be safe,” he said of swimming amid the danger zone of the Vietnam War.
Larsen said the air had to constantly be moving as soldiers slept to keep mosquitoes away. A fan with no cover was near his bed, exposing the blades.
“We called it ‘The Man Eater’, because during an attack we had to get down. I’ve cut myself on ‘The Man Eater,'” he said.
Jamie Sherry, the K-12 instructional leader of social studies for Monroe Public Schools, said Larsen, Navy veteran Victor Yanosy, Marine Corps veteran Norma Chavez-Bissell and Army veteran John Esposito greeted groups of students in the library from 8:30 a.m. until 12:30 p.m.
“It’s one of the best events we do all year, because it gives kids an authentic learning experience and a window into our military’s history,” Sherry said. “The kids always say they love to be able to shake people’s hands and hear their stories.”
After several sessions in the media center the veterans enjoyed lunch made by culinary teacher Amy Bien’s students in the main office. The meals included pasta and meatballs, salad, rolls and cookies for dessert.
Principal Steve Swensen stopped in to see them when they ate.
“I came here to thank you for your service,” Swensen said. “It’s great for the kids to hear. It’s one thing to read about it or watch a movie about it, but to hear people first-hand …”
The American Legion
Earlier in the day, Victor Yanosy spoke to students in an area near the windows of the media center. Yanosy is commander of Monroe’s Sippin-Winspur American Legion Post 176. He served in the Navy from 1967 to 1971, then was in active duty in the Army Reserves from 1974 to ’96.
Yanosy served during the Vietnam War, gathering intelligence aboard a ship on Pearl Harbor.
“I asked if anybody was thinking of joining the military,” he said of the students he met throughout the day. “A few raised their hands. One day of active duty and you qualify to join the American Legion Post.”
Yanosy also asked if they had any relatives who served. “There were not many parents, but there were grandparents,” he said. “My wife and I are always looking to get people to join the Legion. You have to live here. A spouse of a veteran can join the Auxiliary.”
“This is the first year we had a female veteran and a lot of girls are embracing it,” Sherry said of Chavez-Bissell. “I really think it’s important to have people they can see themselves as. The anniversary of the Marine Corps is today. She has the birthday card they sent out.”
Chavez-Bissell said it was the Marine Corps’ 248th birthday, while proudly holding up the card. “I joined the Marine Corps in 1974, but I didn’t receive any orders to go into bootcamp until ’75.”
She served until 1979 with two years of active duty and two-and-a-half years in the Reserves.
Of the students she spoke to Friday, Chavez-Bissell said, “they were very attentive young women and young men. My major desire to be here is to remind the students how great our country is, and to remind them our veterans represent the best of us, because they put their lives on the line to protect our rights and to keep the world at peace.”
“And they may be called to defend the rights they received, because others have done it for all of us,” she added of the students. “They are a wonderful group of people.”
A history lesson
John Esposito served in the Army from 1968-’70, during the Vietnam War. “I was with the Delta Troop 2nd 17th Calvary with the 101st Airborne Division,” he said.
On Friday, he covered a table with an Army helmet, hats and other visual aids, as well as information to share with students.
Esposito gave them a short lesson on the history of the military, including the six branches, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington Cemetery, the different military medals, military holidays, and how the one-percent of the U.S. population serving in the military protects us and the world 24/7.
“I talked about some of my own experiences,” Esposito said. “I try to give them a little history lesson on the military and I think some of them walked away with a different perspective of the military, what it does and why it is.”
“The whole concept of the military changed on 9/11, because the country woke up to the fact that the only thing between use and the people who don’t want democracy or freedom, who want a totalitarian state like in George Orwell’s book, ‘1984’, is the military,” he said.
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