Veterans' exploits come alive in students' mini-documentaries

Corona del Mar High School students this week celebrated another batch of student-made mini-documentaries about local veterans.

The program matches students with servicemen and servicewomen who tell their stories for the 10- to 15-minute films. Participants fought in World War II, Iraq, Afghanistan and many of the conflicts in between.

Denise Weiland, the project's coordinator, assigned a veteran to a group of sophomores, each tasked with creating an on-camera interview.

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At the culmination of the project, students invited the veterans to a luncheon Thursday at CdM and gave them DVDs of the final products. This year, 96 films were made.

The Living History Program project began in 1999 with five World War II veterans from the Freedom Committee of Orange County. They were invited to speak on a CdM-hosted panel and now the short film project is embedded in the history curriculum.

Chris Merkle participated for the third time. The Marine Corps veteran described the project as positive for both veterans and students.

"It's not just a date in a book, it's about sharing the human story," said Merkle, who served in the Gulf War in 1991 and volunteered as a infantry platoon sergeant from 2003-10 in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Merkle, who is studying clinical psychology at Azusa Pacific University in hopes of one day helping others, called the experience therapeutic.

"Not many in my cohort are at the stage where they're ready to talk about what they saw and went though," Merkle said, "but it's a really moving experience to sit there with kids and see them get excited."

Student Simone Oberreiter, 15, said he found interviewing Merkle insightful, saying it was "cool to hear every detail."

Christopher Cruttenden, 15, said he enjoyed interviewing Dick O'Brien in the WWII veteran's Seal Beach home.

Originally from South Dakota, O'Brien, now 92, was drafted into the Army at 18 and fought in France and Germany.

O'Brien, a longtime project participant, said it's an "enriching" experience for students to hear from a generation of veterans who may not be around much longer.

During the two-hour interview in O'Brien's home, he shared photographs and let Christopher try on his uniform.

"To do a project on a hero who fought for our country and freedom, it doesn't get much better than that," Christopher said. "It's way better than having to write an essay."

The Freedom Committee meets at 11:30 a.m. the second Wednesday of every month at at the Neighborhood Community Center, 1845 Park Ave., Costa Mesa.

For information, visit: fc-oc.org.

priscella.vega@latimes.com

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