The Veterans of Foreign Wars Museum hosted a 7th grade class from Horace Mann Elementary School on Thursday, December 15, as they often do for students in the Bayonne School District. Members of Post 226, including former mayor and military veteran Richard Rutkowski, spoke with students, describing the structure of military organizations, his experience in the army, what it means to show respect, and the importance of leadership. Students had fun learning some boot drill commands and getting hands-on education with real military paraphernalia. The veteran volunteers showed off old military items like draft cards, dog tags, can openers, and photos from past wars.
“When you leave and go to boot camp, it’s culture shock,” Louis Rowan, a navy veteran of the Korean War, told the group. “You are no longer a name. You are a number. I’ll never forget mine.” He recited his number, as did the other veterans in attendance. “Those numbers stay with us our entire lives.”
Val Koltunkowicz played the bugle while the 7th graders stood at attention. “Ten hut,” Rutkowski commanded as the students saluted. They were even drilled on sitting down fast. The kids had fun with it. They embraced the challenges, whether it was correctly standing at attention, or identifying Vietnam-era smoke signals. John Scaffini, a Vietnam veteran, described search and destroy missions and his multiple experiences being shot down in helicopters. Still, the kids seemed most amused by holding a P-38 can opener. It was entertaining and educating, and they certainly weren’t used to military talk.
A museum of learning
“It’s good for the kids to come learn about the sacrifices that others have made so they can live the way they live,” said Frank Barone, a world history teacher at Horace Mann. “It’s like a crash course in 20 minutes. I don’t get a chance to touch on half of this stuff.” Barone said that 7th graders can be rusty on their U.S. history, because the subject is not taught in depth until high school.
“It’s hard for them to understand because they’ve never really been exposed to it,” said Barone.
Classes have been visiting the museum for as long as it has been around. What the museum offers students is rare, said Commander Glen Flora, 68, who runs the museum. “This is free. Kids ask questions, meet veterans, and talk to them one on one, and find out why some vets have problems from what they experienced in combat.” Flora said cross-generational interactions strengthen students’ ability to see a soldiers’ perspective from a different time period.
“It’s history that shouldn’t be forgotten. We have pictures of the Holocaust that shouldn’t be forgotten,” said Flora, showing students displays of Bayonne’s three Medal of Honor recipients.
One corner displays a photograph of Jerome Jacobs,Flora’s best friend growing up. His nephew, Louis Rowan, also a veteran, was there that day to speak to students.
“This is more than flipping through a book,” said Barone, pointing out an army jacket on a manikin with a family friend’s last name emblazoned on the name tag. “This is living, breathing history.”
Flora gets a lot of help running the museum, namely the veterans who volunteer their time, but also from BCB Bank and the Bayonne School District. In November, at the Field of Heroes ceremony held at Bayonne High School, Flora was awarded a check for $5,000 to go toward museum maintenance. Schools Superintendent Patricia McGeehan said the museum helps to create a “learning community” that will “stay for generations and generations.”
“They always say this is Bayonne’s best-kept secret,” said Flora. “That’s the problem. I don’t want it to be a secret.”
Rory Pasquariello may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.