ADAMS COUNTY, Pa. (WHTM) — The junior ROTC kids did great work.
But when their faculty leader, Lt. Col. (Ret.) Michael Athanasakis, asked them about D-Day — June 6, 1944, when 4,400 allied troops died storming the beaches at Normandy, France, and possibly saving the world from fascism — many of them had only vague knowledge.
Same when Athanasakis, completing his first year running the program at Gettysburg Area High School, asked them about the Tuskegee Airmen, America’s first African-American aviators, who also fought in World War II: mostly blank stares.
His solution to ensure they had the knowledge he thought they needed alongside the experience they were getting?
“I said, imagine if they could go there, Athanasakis said. “Stand on the sand where these citizen soldiers stormed the shore. Look up to the sky where paratroopers, you know, they jumped and ‘dared greatly’ into the night.”
So he asked school administrators what they thought about sending the kids for D-Day of 2022 with a national program (which took some students from the school back in 2014).
Principal Jeremy Lusk’s answer?
“Easy and absolute yes!” Lusk said Monday, characterizing his response back when Athanasakis first asked. Lusk was a history teacher before he went into administration and said “there are some great lessons to be learned within the walls of a classroom. But when you can take a group of kids — students, cadets — to Normandy to experience the history, it can be a life-changing experience.”
It seemed appropriate for no shortage of reasons: the sacrifice American servicemen made at both Gettysburg and Normany, for sure, and also the fact that Gettysburg and the Normandy town of Sainte-Mère-Église are sister cities.
About 18 students will get to go, along with some parents, administrators and faculty members. The trip will cost about $3,000 per student. So far, through various fundraising efforts, they’ve raised about a third of that.
Not lost on the students: the fact that they’re the last generation that will not only get to visit Normandy but meet World War II veterans, nearly all of whom will have died by the end of this decade.
“It’s really important to carry on their legacy and tell their stories — what they’ve been through personally for their country,” said Danielle Gebler, who will be a senior at the school next year and commander of the JROTC unit.
Stories, Athanasakis said, today’s students will someday tell their own children.
Gauge Wetzel, who will be a sophomore, said D-Day this past weekend meant something extra for him.
“I’m just counting the days until we actually go,” he said. “I think it’s amazing that we get to experience something like this at such a young age… because [D-Day] changed the world, really.”
JROTC, or the Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Program, is a program supported by the U.S. armed forces to prepare students to be leaders in the military or other realms of life.