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Local veterans give students a lesson in military service

U.S. Army Sgt. Don Carter, a 94-year-old World War II veteran who began his service with the 1944 Invasion of Normandy, said an Army chaplain counseled him and his fellow service members to expect to die every day. Then rejoice every night when they didn’t.

Fighting to liberate France from the Nazis, Carter went as long as seven weeks without a shower. And he went 11 months without setting foot in any type of building, or sleeping in a bed.

“Nobody knows how miserable war is,” Carter said. “There are a lot of people getting killed around you all the time.”

Those are the kind of details shared by Carter during a visit to McHenry High School - West Campus. Carter, along with several other local veterans, spoke all day during panel discussions at both West Campus and East Campus on Nov. 9 in honor of Veterans Day.

Throughout the day, classes at both campuses were able to listen to the veterans tell their stories, then ask questions about their experiences. In addition to Carter, veterans Dwane Lungren, Brad Opalinski, Jim Wautelet and Colin Brennan spoke at West Campus.

At East Campus, veterans Josh Hileman, Tony Diller, Wil Platacis, Jon Charbot and Patrick Noote spent the day talking with students, and answering questions.

Since school is in session for Veterans Day, McHenry High School teachers work to make it a memorable learning experience for students. In addition to the real-life discussions with veterans, students watched video clips of service members in action, whether in the distant past or in more recent operations.

“We want to make it meaningful,” said Sean Stermer, West Campus teacher and assistant division head for social science.

Meaningful, indeed. Throughout the presentations, veterans painted detailed portraits of their experiences, including training and active duty.

Many were asked by students why they served, and what got them through it. Veterans told stories of dangerous missions as well how hot it was serving in places like Hawaii.

For Carter, enlisting wasn’t really a choice. A Libertyville resident who was born outside Rochester, New York, Carter recalls a mandatory draft brought him into the Army’s 44th Field Artillery Battalion, 4th Infantry Division, fighting in notable operations as D-Day, the Battle of the Bulge, and others.

“Back when I went to high school, the war started with the bombing of Pearl Harbor,” Carter told the students. “The one thing we had to look forward to was being drafted.”

Now, Carter told students, he is the last surviving male of his high school Class of 1943. His memories and his keepsakes -- an iron cross he took from a captured Nazi, and a Nazi flag -- are part of history that is growing more distant by the day.

According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, only 496,777 of the 16 million Americans who served in World War II are alive in 2018. Of those, 17,550 live in Illinois.

That makes Carter’s annual stop to McHenry West a special event. With his flag, iron cross, Normandy sash and caps decorated with pins representing different awards and operations, Carter treats students to one of his favorite stories of his division’s participation in helping liberate France from German forces.

When the Army was preparing to storm the beaches at Normandy, General Theodore Roosevelt Jr., eldest son of President Teddy Roosevelt, wanted be with them. But generals were not allowed to go into combat, Carter said.

Eventually, Roosevelt got permission from his cousin, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, to accompany the troops but then “dropped dead” of a heart attack during the invasion, Carter said.

His annual McHenry West High School visit is one of many he makes throughout the area, he said. He’s gone back to visit his former battlefields several times since the war ended, and he participated in a documentary titled, “WWII: D-Day and the Providence of God,” a seven-episode video curriculum published in 2011 by The Vision Forum.

Two of the other veterans featured in the video series have passed away, he said. It’s up to him to keep their stories alive. “I just tell my story,” he said.


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