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Pomelo Elementary's mission: Honor veterans with 'Heroes' Day'

Sandy Banks: Elementary students' 'thank you' to veterans is also a history lesson

Veterans Day was over when the balloons went up and the flags came out at Pomelo Elementary this week, in a 14-year-old tradition that offers a history lesson for third-graders and a stage for aging military veterans to spin stories of their exploits.

Tuesday was "Heroes' Day" at the West Hills school, a celebration that took shape in the shadow of Sept. 11, as teachers tried to wring uplifting lessons from the tragedy by inviting police and firefighters to visit their third-grade classes.

They wanted their students to understand that real heroes weren't the baseball players and entertainers the children idolized, but public servants who might be required to put their lives on the line.

"Five heroes showed up that first year, and we gave them each a brownie," recalled Judy Saute, one of seven teachers who organized that modest tribute in 2001. "We held it around Thanksgiving because we were thankful for their service."

The program has morphed since then into a two-hour extravaganza, with patriotic songs, confetti cannons, police helicopter flyovers and a feast prepared by parents. Dozens of heroes are invited: firefighters, police officers, deputies, paramedics — and lots of veterans of every war from World War II to Afghanistan and Iraq.

After the children perform, microphones are passed among visitors eager to share stories from their military service — whether they spent it dropping bombs or cleaning mess-hall kitchens.

Much of what the men describe is beyond the ken of 8-year-olds, who won't study American history until they hit fifth grade. They don't know about the Battle of Guadalcanal or the difference between an M-60 machine gun and a B-24 bomber. They haven't heard about concentration camps or know that Americans fought in Korea and Vietnam.

And they probably don't understand why tears were running down the cheeks of old men in the audience on Tuesday, as their voices rose in song: And I'm proud to be an American where at least I know I'm free...

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I came as a guest, not intending to write about the event. But it spoke to me on so many levels, I just couldn't resist.

The ceremony has become a touchstone in this community at the western edge of the San Fernando Valley, where Los Angeles gives way to Ventura County. Local high schools send a marching band and military color guard. Several of the veterans have personal ties to Pomelo: Their mothers or wives taught here, their grandchildren are students. One used to trim the trees on campus, another helped build the school.

It's also an example of the way good teachers bring real life into the classroom. This history session didn't require an iPad or a scripted curriculum guide. It grew organically from chats among teachers in the lunchroom and required cooperation from parents and a principal willing to go the extra mile.

And it reflects the new reverence we feel for military vets. Many have outlived their comrades and have no one to talk to now. Other fought in unheralded or unpopular wars. "These are people who are not often asked, 'What's your story?'" said Stacy Stark, whose three children attended Pomelo; the youngest is now in third grade.

Some of those stories are hard even for grown-ups to hear.

Stark remembers one "Heroes' Day" years ago when the mike was passed to a scruffy-looking middle-aged man. He stood and started sobbing so hard he couldn't speak.

"The room went silent," she said. "The children didn't know what was going on. Then he said he had served in Vietnam. 'And this is the first time anybody has thanked me.' The vets made a circle around him and there was this very long hug."

Tuesday's session included a reminder of that. Another Vietnam veteran said he was awed by the display of patriotism. "You don't see enough of that, especially in schools," he said. He told the children it was the first time he'd been invited to celebrate his service. "We got the short stick," he said.

The children didn't understand, but the veterans did.

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The veterans took their mission on Tuesday very seriously, and they doled out plenty of advice.

Like this from a World War II vet, who urged the children to graduate so they could enlist: "It's a good life in the service, where you do what you're asked to do without a lot of feedback. That's enough from me. I'm 92 years old."

Some had tales of heart-stopping exploits. Others apologized that their stories weren't more exciting. But there was a lesson even in that: Protecting freedom requires more than dropping bombs and toting guns.

These veterans worked in hospitals, taught classes, repaired bridges, pipes and planes. They scrubbed floors, studied the weather, stitched soldiers back together.

Tuesday, they reminded the children that, as one veteran put it, "this country didn't come from ashes, it came from hard work." And the children reminded them of something, too. World War II Army Air Corps navigator Michael LaVere put it well when it was his turn to speak:

"It was worth doing what we did back then to give you this kind of world."

sandy.banks@latimes.com

Twitter: @sandybanksLAT

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