State High students hear tales of war from Penn State veterans

crosenblum@centredaily.comApril 7, 2014 

Maesso Kelly was curious.

The State College Area High School junior asked Matt Gibbons, a National Guard veteran who served in Iraq, how scary battles are.

Gibbons replied he had never been in an actual firefight. But he had some insight from completing a combat tour with a Stryker unit, during which he lost an eye from an exploding grenade tossed into his vehicle.

“I can tell you the scariest thing about being in situations like that is not knowing what is going to happen,” said Gibbons, one of three veterans attending Penn State who visited the school Monday to discuss their military experiences as well as a common reading book.

The veterans, along with a fourth Penn State student with military aspirations, spoke with an 11th-grade English class reading “The Warrior’s Heart,” an inspirational memoir by former Navy SEAL Eric Greitens and the focus of the current State High Reads program.

Breaking into four groups for about an hour, the guests and State High students talked about Greitens’ themes of compassion, dedication, teamwork and leadership.

In addition to a military career that included Iraq and Afghanistan tours, Greitens studied at Oxford University as a Rhodes scholar and served as a humanitarian worker in Rwanda, Bosnia and other countries.

“It was just really nice to talk to a stranger about the same book we’re reading,” State High student Brad Snyder said. “I got used to talking with my classmates. It was fun to talk to somebody different about the same thing.”

A Penn State tie led to the event.

Jackie Edmondson, a Penn State education professor and the associate vice president and associate dean of undergraduate education, and Lois Scarangella, the State High North Building librarian, direct common reading programs at their respective schools.

While reviewing their efforts, both modeled after the Centre County Reads program, they came up with the veterans’ visit. Penn State’s Office of Educational Equity, which helped pay for the State High Reads books, includes a veterans office that Edmondson tapped into for Monday’s speakers.

“It’s been really nice to get to know them,” Edmondson said. “They’re really terrific young men.”

Gibbons, who retired as a staff sergeant, is now a senior studying secondary education with a focus on social studies.

Joining him were Sean Litchford, a former Army private first class and Patriot missile battery crew member now a junior majoring in secondary education, and Brent Smith, a former infantry sergeant in the Marines finishing his senior year toward a history degree.

Freshman Davon Clark brought an interest in joining the military and a family history of service.

“They’re very busy people, and I thought it was terrific that they were willing to take the time to come here in the afternoon and talk to the students,” Edmondson said.

“I think, across them, there’s this nice sense of service, and of wanting to be of service to the community.”

Smith said the service opportunity helped motivate him.

“I think it’s important to reach out and touch the community a bit when you can,” he said, adding that the chance to teach about military life also was appealing.

Tylor Chatterly enjoyed speaking to a veteran.

“I think it was really insightful just to get another point of view,” he said. “It was very nice, actually, because I’m considering going into the armed forces.”

Veterans must pass on their stories to preserve them, Gibbons said. But like Smith and Litchford, he also took part out of appreciation for Greitens’ book and its positive messages for young males and teenagers in general.

“He’s telling (them) that life is difficult but it can be fun and rewarding at the same time, and there are things you have to push through,” Gibbons said.

“One of the most important messages I saw there was: You can’t do it alone. The more things you try on your own, the harder your experience is going to be.”

Greitens’ ordeal from the grueling SEAL training regimen came up in Gibbons’ group. Gibbons doubted he could physically keep up.

“It takes a special person to go through all that nonsense and still want to do it,” he said. “It’s just craziness, absolute craziness.”

But, he told his students, training becomes paramount for anyone facing combat.

“If you trained well and you’re prepared for your mission, it’s not going to be scary,” he said.

Along with thoughts about “The Warrior’s Heart,” he and his fellow veterans shared tidbits from their service years.

To illustrate war’s randomness, Gibbons told about his first Iraq mission. Three times his convoy failed to detonate an IED buried under the road.

“The third time we drove over it, we’re 200, 300 meters down the road and it explodes,” he said. “Talk about a strange introduction to what you’re going to do when you’re in-country.”

Litchford described a memorable stopover in Ireland while returning from the Middle East.

“I still remember the smell of the dewy grass,” he said. “We came at 8 in the morning, and we had the spent the year breathing in sand dust and just all sorts of nasty.”

Recalling his time in the Marines, Smith covered several subjects: boot camp, checkpoint duty as a weapons company team leader, even the common practice of tying together gear on men so they wouldn’t lose items.

“We’d have guys who looked like they jumped in a cat’s cradle and just had string all over them because they were forgetful or lazy,” he said.

But when Smith passed around photos of his old comrades posing in Iraq, he may have provided the day’s most revealing glimpse into military life. Smith called the camouflaged men “some of the best guys I’ve ever known.”

“I’m still in contact with a lot of these guys,” he said. “I’m really close with them. We spent a lot of time in the dirt.”

Chris Rosenblum can be reached at 231-4620. Follow him on Twitter @CRosenblumNews.

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