By Kelly Haugh
SARVER, Pa. – Freeport Area Senior High School honored local veterans with a day of classroom discussions Nov. 10.
In its third year, Freeport’s annual Veterans Day festivities brought over 20 local veterans into the high school’s social studies and English classes to share their military experiences with students and answer questions. Almost every branch of service and era of the military was represented, from World War II to servicemen who’d just returned from Iraq and Afghanistan.
For many students, the frank discussion gives them an unprecedented glimpse into military life that reminds them just how much these brave men and women sacrifice and how much we, as a nation, owe them. Many students used their free periods and study halls to drop in on other classes for the chance to hear more speakers, resulting in almost every class being standing room only.
Students were especially excited to see one of last year’s veterans return. World War II veteran and Freeport graduate Harry Crytzer, of Sarver, deeply impacted everyone fortunate enough to hear him speak, and several students could be heard sharing his story with their friends in the hallways.
Crytzer, along with six other Freeport football players, decided to enlist in the Navy Air Corps in 1944 after the last high school football game of the season. He was only a 17-year-old junior who’d never been away from home before, and he recalled having to beg his mother to sign the form permitting him to enlist. He spent the war in the South Pacific, flying a 3-man fighter bomber off an aircraft carrier before being shipped to Guam where he travelled from island to island to do whatever needed done.
“It was a rewarding experience,” Crytzer said. “It was a knowledgeable, learning experience for a 17 and 18-year-old kid.”
“I’m proud to have served this country. I’m proud that, in my opinion, this country saved the world,” Crytzer said, adding that “serving this country is a very honorable thing…It’s a great thing to do with your life.”
Crytzer’s pride in America and his fellow servicemen was evident in his voice as he spoke and referenced the
different historical images throughout the social studies classroom, even getting choked up over a photo of his commander-in-chief, President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
“I can’t say enough about the goodness of this country,” Crytzer said. “That war was a war different than the types of wars we have today. This country was attacked. This country was on its knees. That man [President Roosevelt] saved not only this country, he saved the world.”
The history lesson Crytzer was teaching kept every student enthralled in a way no textbook or documentary could. He brought history to life and was able to relate it to the students’ own lives. Crytzer told students of the utter desperation of the Great Depression, saying it was 20 times worse than the recession we’ve been struggling through. “You’re very fortunate to have the good things in life,” he told them.
One student in the audience asked what Crytzer feels, as a veteran, when he sees the American flag or hears the national anthem. “I feel total comfort within my body when the national anthem is played,” Crytzer responded. “I feel so proud, not only that I served but just what a great country it is. I go to the [Freeport] basketball games. One of the things that almost brings tears to my eyes is when Jamie Phillips sings the national anthem.”
One of the reasons Crytzer’s story connected so easily with students was that he returned to Freeport to finish his education and receive his high school diploma, something he’s extremely proud of. During last year’s classroom discussion, he boasted that “when I bleed, I bleed blue and gold [Freeport’s colors],” a sentiment which resonated with many of the students. But it was his response to a question this year seemed to strike a chord with the students unlike any other. When one student asked what it was like to come home after serving overseas for so long, Crytzer managed to choke several members of the audience up with his unexpected response.
Crytzer described what he called, “The greatest sight I ever saw in my life,” with his voice still full of wonderment all these years later. It took 23 hours on several planes for him to get from California to Pittsburgh. Afterwards, he explained, “I got a taxi from Pittsburgh to Freeport. It was on Friday night. Coming down the hill into Freeport, they had newly installed lights. There was a football game, and that’s the greatest sight I saw, that I could ever see. [It was] a great homecoming.”
He left students with one final message, “Keep studying. Keep working.” It was a lesson that seemed to carry more weight coming from him, just as his history lessons left more of an impression on students than anything they’d studied in school.
According to former principal Robert Schleiden, an Air Force veteran who’d joined with a group of students to start Freeport’s Veterans Day tradition and who attended this year’s event as a veteran speaker after his retirement last spring, putting a face and a voice on our nation’s history and our veterans’ sacrifices were the whole point of bringing veterans into the classrooms. “We thought that personal interaction between the veteran and the student, where the student could freely ask questions and get to actually see the expression and feel the emotion of the veteran was real important,” he explained.
Sgt. Myers, an Army veteran of 8 years who has served in Iraq and Afghanistan, said that the classroom discussions also provide a welcomed chance for soldiers and veterans to educate the public on what the military is really like. “The Army isn’t what people think it is,” he explained, adding that he enjoyed the chance to talk to students and answer any questions or misconceptions they might have.
All those involved consider Freeport’s Veterans Day event a huge success, and both the students and veterans are already looking forward to next year.