BRANFORD — Talk about heady experiences.
Amid a stirring rendition of “The Army Song” at Branford High School’s 22nd annual Anthony “Bob” Bescher Veterans Appreciation Day last Monday, BHS graduate Matt Kilfeather, having just completed boot camp in Fort Benning, Ga., stood up with Army veterans to the thunderous applause of 600 students, teachers, and staff crowding every inch of the Student Commons.
“Being fresh out of basic training and sitting next to people who’ve been through it all was overwhelming,” said Private 2nd Class Kilfeather, 25, who’s in the Army National Guard. “It’s crazy to think they went through so much for us.”
It wasn’t overwhelming for that reason alone.
Kilfeather, seated among 40 guests of honor that ranged from Korean War, Vietnam and Gulf War veterans to a junior at West Point, was a student in Horizons, the BHS alternative education program that has coordinated the event for the last 22 years.
“I helped set this up as a student,” he said, “and now I’m in the cafeteria looking at this huge crowd of kids.”
Veterans Appreciation Day began in 1999 as a natural extension of conversations between Horizons students and Bescher, a Korean War veteran and teaching aide, according to Salvatore Zarra, event coordinator, Horizons educator and Student Council advisor.
“The students were interested in learning a little bit more about veterans’ experiences,” Zarra said.
From a morning affair in three classrooms with 25 students and 12 veterans, it’s grown over the years into a daylong program with a school-wide assembly in the morning and small group firsthand presentations on conflicts stretching to Korea and World War II, Zarra said.
In the process, it’s become “part of the experience at BHS,” said Horizons social studies teacher Kevin Connell. In 2017, it was recognized by the state Department of Veterans Affairs for “bringing living history to the classroom.”
David Gruendel, a BHS social studies teacher who served as an Army sergeant in the 10th Mountain Division in Afghanistan, summed up what sets the annual program apart.
“The fact that we’re all here today (on Veterans Day) is a very special thing,” he told the assembly. “There are veterans all over the U.S. that don’t get this recognition.”
Speaker Lea Coppola, a Horizons student and the granddaughter of Joe Amatruda, a medic in the National Guard, agreed.
“A lot of schools are off for Veterans Day and kids don’t get to hear their stories and don’t get to hear what Veterans Day is all about,” she said.
This year was a particular highlight, with U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-3, serving as keynote speaker, Zarra said.
“You are what our veterans have fought for and the democracy they fought for,” she told the students, adding that her father served in the Army for nine years and her mother worked on the home front at Winchester Repeating Arms Co.
DeLauro stressed the value of gaining firsthand insight into the veterans’ knowledge and experience, noting their common reluctance to talk about their service.
“Each of you has the ability and power to help draw them out and have them share the sacrifices they made and the hardships they endured,” she said.
She also reminded students that the military is one way to serve, but there are other public service paths they can follow — for example, as a teacher, police officer or elected official.
For Coppola, who’s assisted in coordinating the event for the past three years, securing Rep. DeLauro as a speaker was a high point, but the program as a whole has been a labor of appreciation and love.
“We really enjoy doing this every year,” she said, detailing the elaborate production, from ensuring the veterans have transportation, to setting up the classrooms, to arranging flowers at the podium in the Commons, to writing thank you notes after the occasion.
By all indications, the “enormous undertaking,” as Horizons social studies teacher Rich Biondi described it, has been worthwhile to all parties involved.
“We take for granted we live in a democracy, but we veterans didn’t take it for granted,” said Robert Russell, who served in the Air Force in Vietnam.
“It means a lot that Branford High School, and Horizons students, do all they do to show their appreciation year after year,” American Legion Post 83 Commander Donald Langlois Sr., a Navy veteran, said.
For the students, there’s no substitute for the small-group presentations, according to Biondi.
“Our kids are listening to someone a few feet away who fought in a battle,” he said. “It’s a textbook coming alive.”
To Zarra’s mind, there’s an added practical value.
“It gives students the chance to ask questions of our younger veterans that aren’t very far removed from being teenagers themselves and perhaps gain some insight into what opportunities exist for them post high school,” he said.
That includes Kilfeather who, posted in the active duty room after the assembly, dispensed advice to waves of students about basic training and the benefits of joining the military, including 100 percent tuition assistance and an advantage gained with employers for the discipline they’ve developed in military training.
“This whole day does a lot for everyone,” he said, “but especially the veterans. They put their lives on the line for us and now they’re getting the recognition they deserved all along.”