NEWINGTON - Although Veterans Day fell on a Saturday this year, schools across town celebrated the holiday all last week and into this week.
For students at Newington High School, that included a visit from retired special education tutor Henry “Hank” Stefanowicz. The Berlin resident and New Britain High School Class of 1963 graduate served from 1968 to 1970 in the U.S. Army Field Artillery, during the Vietnam War. Forty years after earning the Bronze Star for saving the lives of fellow soldiers, Stefanowicz finally received the medal from U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal in 2012.
He tells young people it’s their responsibility to show veterans gratitude for their service and sacrifice. Many - like himself - still suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. “You can take the soldier out of the war but you can’t take the war out of the soldier,” Stefanowicz said. “It’s in me forever.”
He went on to explain to sociology teacher Ashly Vallera’s class how common activities like seeing a movie are impossible. Unmarked entry and exit doors in a dark theatre with people all around mimics ambush points in combat.
“It doesn’t change,” Stefanowicz said. “Once you’ve been through combat your life is never the same - never.”
He retired last June and is now a school volunteer. Vallera asked him to speak to her classes before Veterans Day.
“Every student in this school, by the time they graduate, will have gotten to see one of his presentations,” she pointed out. “A lot of these kids would never have had the opportunity to meet and listen to a Vietnam veteran.”
The presentation is one he has given many times before and will continue to as long as he can.
“As hard as this is to do, I have to do it,” said Stefanowicz, who withholds the horrors of war but shares the challenges of resuming a normal life after it.
At the beginning of the class students were asked to bring their cell phones up to the front of the room. All would get them back except senior Robert Nagy, who was challenged by the veteran when he tried to retrieve his phone.
“When you came to school today did you know somebody was ready to take away your freedom?” Stefanowicz asked the wide-eyed teen. “Were you prepared to protect or defend it?”
Those who had seen one of his presentations in the past were familiar with this exercise and knew Nagy would get the device back. Some had heard his speech before. After class, every single student offered Stefanowicz a handshake or hug before they left. And he appreciated it.
“Don’t pass up an opportunity to say thank you to a soldier,” he said. “You may never get that opportunity again.”
Student Alyssa Rivera was close to her uncle, a Vietnam vet, before he died when she was 10. The presentation brought tears to her eyes.
“It was very insightful,” Rivera said afterwards. “I thought about my uncle a lot.”
Over the morning announcements Friday, the NHS Chamber Choir sang “Tell My Father” from The Civil War: An American Musical.” Later on Angela Amorosino’s English classes completed “Operation Gratitude” - a letter writing campaign for local vets. Teacher Karina Ramos invited a Spanish veteran in for the day. Iraq and Afghanistan veterans spoke to history teacher Tim Sullivan’s classes. The department held a donation drive for the Newington VA as well.
John Wallace Middle School students presented veterans their own original poetry, artwork and a live performance of the national anthem Friday. Younger students read the picture book “The Wall.”
Martin Kellogg Middle School students made a trip to the Newington VA Hospital on Monday, where they colored the sidewalks with messages and drawings. Assistant Chief of Volunteer Services Joe Canzanella directed the group to work by the building’s main entrance, so veterans coming and leaving would see.
“It’s best to educate the kids young,” he said. “Every day is Veterans Day. If it wasn’t for their fight we wouldn’t be standing on this ground here today.”
Sixth-grader Kyra Goss got started quickly, composing several “thank you” notes on the concrete.
“I’m writing this general message because no matter which veteran it is they feel honored and appreciated,” she said.
Erica Schmitt can be reached at 860-801-5097, or firstname.lastname@example.org.