MARINE CORPS AIR GROUND COMBAT CENTER TWENTYNINE PALMS, Calif. -- “I hate war. I detest it… But I love freedom more,” said retired Army Lt. Col. Richard D. Wandke, a volunteer speaker at the Veterans Advisory Council’s Walk of Honor program.
Wandke, commanding officer at the Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps at Santiago High School in Garden Grove, Calif., was one of a few veterans to share their story with more than 2,800 fifth-grade students from schools throughout Orange County at the annual event from Nov. 14 to 17 at the Civic Center Plaza of Santa Ana, Calif.
Wandke received the Distinguished Service Cross, the second highest honor next to the Medal of Honor, for his valorous actions as a captain in May 1969 during the Vietnam War. Now, the American and Army flags are posted over a plaque mounted on a wall, as part of the Veterans Walk of Honor Memorial, to tell his story.
This memorial was built this year with 11 Orange County Distinguished Service Cross recipients honored on the wall. There will be five more recipients who were not able to be found when the memorial was first built, but will be added by May 2006, said Hal Camp, founder of the Walk of Honor program.
The first part of the memorial was built to honor the Orange County Congressional Medal of Honor recipients. Eight monoliths, with the name and history behind the honorees, form a semi-circle around a large monument devoted to all Orange County veterans from World War I, World War II, Korea and Vietnam.
“I wanted young children to remember true American heroes,” said Camp. “I wanted the kids to get exposed to the real heroes, who did real things.”
Soon after the first memorial was built, Camp, along with the Veterans Advisory Council of Orange County, planned an annual event that would bring American military heroes to life for fifth-grade students across the county.
The council sent out an invitation to all the schools in the area to bring students to enjoy war stories along with sights and sounds of military weapons, vehicles and music.
“The teachers loved the idea,” said Douglas A. Boeckler, manager of the Veterans Services Office. “But they worried about getting the funding for the buses. So we decided to ask for more of a budget to be able to reimburse the costs of transportation.”
The county agreed to reimburse the schools up to $200 for making the trip.
The event spanned four days with an average of 650 to 700 students per day coming to absorb the knowledge of the veterans who volunteered to spend the day sharing their history.
There were an average of 10 volunteers on hand every day to speak and escort children to each station. There were five different stations the children passed through in groups of about 30.
The first station was an introduction to the Congressional Medal of Honor. There, children learned the history behind the medal and what it takes to earn one. The speaker had the children re-enact a scene of a troop covering a grenade with his body to save the lives of other troops. The children were in awe, as their eyes grew wide after hearing the heroic story and having the opportunity to pass around an actual Medal of Honor.
At the next station, children looked at the Medal of Honor memorial, where they met up with one of the many volunteers, such as Wandke, who told stories of each hero honored at the memorial. That’s where Wandke, who has also been awarded two Silver Stars and three Bronze Stars, told his own story of heroism.
After that station, the students caught a glimpse of history right before their eyes, with actual weapons and gear from World War II and the Korean War. Children learned about the prisoners of war in that era and the challenges and sacrifices Americans made while detained behind enemy lines.
“You could either starve to death, get tortured to death or work to death…and you couldn’t complain to anyone … No one cared, even their government wouldn’t help you out,” the speaker told the children.
In the same station, children were able to view and learn about vehicles and weapons of past wars and many students took advantage of a question and answer period at the end.
During the next station, a volunteer acting as a nurse, sat in an ambulance to tell of the evolution of plasma and battlefield medicine in World War II. The ‘nurse’ sounded the siren for the students to kick off the presentation. Then, she told of the history of the Geneva Cross, and how it became the international symbol of medical aid.
At the last station, John Whiteriver, commander of the American Legion of Orange County, Calif., told the story of Taps. Then he played the music on a bugle, while the children stood at attention with their hands over their heart.
“Although I hate war, I am willing to put my life on the line to preserve the foundation of America,” said Wandke. “I will continue to support the fight so generations to come will have the same freedom.”