GLOCESTER, R.I. (WPRI) - Marine Matt Printer offers a friendly face but harsh reality to a room of 8 th graders at his alma mater.
The teens barely blink.
Printer and several other veterans serve as teachers about a half dozen times during the school year, offering details of what they survived as part of a high-powered, daily class at Ponaganset Middle School.
"Wreaths Across America," teacher Michael Calenda says with booming enthusiasm. "Remember, honor, teach."
The students participate with sharp attention, like the veterans did when they served. Frank Meo fought in Korea and is a regular participant in Ponaganset's Wreaths Across America program.
"The forgotten war," Meo tells the students. "It's important to make children aware that liberty? There's a cost."
December brings the centerpiece of the national program. Christmas wreaths, sponsored for $15 each, are donated from across the country and driven from a tree farm in Maine to Arlington National Cemetery. In 2010, the convoy made a stop in Glocester and took Calenda to be part of the army of volunteers who lay the wreaths on the graves of the fallen.
"To look out as far as you can see and see that many wreaths," Calenda says, smiling. "It was actually one of the most impressive sights I've ever seen."
The students seem to be impressed with the weekly lessons that lead to the November 30 ceremony at their school and the December wave of wreaths that will decorate Arlington.
Their cell phones are off and laptops and electronic readers are replaced by face to face contact.
"I don't think I'm unusual among veterans to say it means a lot to us," Vietnam Veteran Tony Milano tells the class.
There are innocent questions from the students about uniforms and women in service. The veterans answer, also adding details about when they were called to duty, how their uncles and fathers went before them and what they all sacrificed. They offer a balance between their obligation to serve and their country's difficult choice of ‘war' as a foreign policy option.
"After all the parades, all the glory, " Printer says. "Young men and young women will die and they will not come home."
Calenda, a retired Johnston police officer, is confident the lessons get through to his students.
"To see them actually take a part of living history rather than a text book to get something from a veteran. It's impressive to see the results immediately in their faces."
Printer tells the students that it wasn't easy to talk about what he experienced but then he decided it was an obligation he owed the Marines he fought with in Iraq and Afghanistan as a member of the 2 nd Infantry Division.
"I had to do everything I could to keep the memory of the guys who didn't come back, alive," the Ponaganset graduate says.
He served 4 years and lost 7 of his fellow Marines. He tells the students details about their lives, saving the worst for last with a question to the class about what the 7 had in common.
"And then everybody goes quiet," Printer says, adding that the students seem stumped. "And I say the one thing they all had in common is they were all killed in action. You can hear a pin drop and it really nails it home. People lose their lives."
Printer and the other veterans say they're not trying to necessarily scare the teens but they also want them to understand that they will someday be a voting part of the process of whether or not their country goes to war.
The wreaths leave Maine next month , arriving in Virginia on December 15.
Copyright WPRI 12
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