With a look of bewilderment and fascination, young Lauren Monack listened intently as she was told the story of the D-Day Invasion during World War II.
Knowing that she is only a fourth grader, U.S. Army veteran Edward Palumbo left out many of the details about that landmark day on June 6, 1944, which ultimately led to the end of the war – though not before one of the most horrific battles in history.
Still, Lauren was impressed with his vivid storytelling.
‘Were you brave?’ she asked the veteran.
‘Oh my, I was a frightened little boy!’ laughed Palumbo, who served in the 29th Division of the U.S. Army.
The story of how thousands of American, British, Canadian and French troops stormed a 50-mile stretch of Normandy on what were known as the Omaha, Utah and Juno beaches was just one of many that Palumbo shared with Lauren.
In fact, Lauren, and her classmates in Margie Pankiewicz’ fourth grade class at Charleroi Elementary learned quite a bit about America’s role in foreign wars thanks to men like Paulmbo. The students adopted local veterans as pen pals and have been writing to them for weeks.
Pankiewicz, a longtime Charleroi teacher and resident, paired up each of her students with a veteran from the Charleroi area. Knowing many of the veterans personally, she even matched up the pen pals according to their personality traits.
The pen pals wrote back and forth to each other for several weeks, with the students asking the veterans details about their lives. In return, the veterans gave them intricate, personal stories about their service in the Korean, World War II and Vietnam eras.
‘These are the kinds of things that can’t be taught from a textbook,’ said Pankiewicz.
The pen pals got to meet one another in the classroom this week, and many of the veterans brought more stories and souvenirs for the students.
The veterans gave the students medals and badges from their years in the service, and even bracelets, flags and other keepsakes.
Charleroi veteran William Hidek, who served in the U.S. Army Medical Corps in Europe during World War II, gave his pen pal, Andrew Sampson, a German coin.
‘That’s what kind of money we would be using had the war ended in Germany’s favor,’ Hidek told him.
While they were impressed with the gifts, the students most enjoyed the veterans’ stories of their time spent overseas.
Hailey Remish learned that U.S. Navy veteran Bill Murphy was aboard the U.S.S. Philadelphia during World War II.
‘He had lots of neat stories to tell,’ said Hailey, after Murphy told her how he helped organize the Mon Valley Shipmates organization.
They also learned the men were fathers and grandfathers and even called a few of them ‘pap’ as they got to know one another.
For Tom Kirby, a Vietnam veteran and commander of American Legion Post 22 in Charleroi, he couldn’t have been prouder to be a part of the class project.
‘It’s so important for kids to know about this kind of history,’ said Kirby, whose pen pal was Justin Linton. ‘It also makes the veterans feel important.’
The class also took up a collection by doing errands around the house for the American Legion’s new veteran’s memorial. The Legion matched the $50 the kids collected.
‘They really got involved in this project, and did a lot of research before corresponding with the veterans,’ added Pankiewicz.
The following is a list of other students and their veteran pen pals, in parenthesis: Devan Burns (Mike Brna); Paolo Ciocco (Ed Paluso); Anthony Griger (Bud Cole); Kurtis Lowe (Dominic Jackman); Madeleine Lucas (Eugene Pro); Kaitlin McAlister (Carmen Palumbo); Tony Medlen (Larry Hopkins); Richard O’Lexa (John Cooper); Mariah Parsons (John Pennline); Kenny Savko (Ted Reynolds); Cody Shepard (Mario Sciacca); Sharon Sphar (Ollie West); Scott Weaver (Sam Marraccini); Amanda Wilson (Ralph Molinari); and Sarah Guess (Joe Blanda).
Sadly, veterans Chuck Pollacci and Marvin Frye, pen pals of students Brittany Hartman and Tina Dragone, passed away while the project was still ongoing.
‘That’s the sad reality … 1,000 veterans die everyday,’ said Kirby.
But thanks to teachers like Margie Pankiewicz, future generations to come will know the mark left by the American veteran.