For 10 years, Ruth Squillace has been bringing veterans into Shoreham-Wading River High School to share their stories with her students.
Typically, they were Vietnam or World War II veterans, men from the students’ parents’ or grandparents’ generation.
It has always been an important event, held the week of Veterans Day for her 11th grade United States history and government students, but Squillace worried about her students’ level of engagement and whether they were too far removed from the wars of past generations.
“I worked with a Vietnam vet who was my primary speaker for eight years,” she said. “But he moved away a couple [of] years ago and I was in need of new veterans.
“We’re living through two wars right now,” she continued. “I think it would be better if this generation of students was able to connect a little bit more.”
So Squillace reached out to the community in search of local veterans of the Iraq or Afghanistan wars and she also asked her students.
“A lot of my students knew somebody or had a relative that had served or was serving in Afghanistan or Iraq,” she said. “So there was an immediate connection among a good percentage of the student audience to the current wars.”
Through her network, Squillace found Jesse Quinn, 31, of Huntington, who was deployed to Iraq with the Army in 2007 and 2008. Quinn also suggested he bring his childhood friend, Chris Sarlo, 31, of Holtsville, who served in Iraq during the same time with the Marines.
Quinn and Sarlo participated in Squillace’s Veterans Day Symposium for the first time last year, and are coming back to the school to speak to students again on Tuesday. This year, they are also bringing two additional friends: Michael Greck, 32, of Rocky Point, who served in Iraq with the Marines in 2003; and Paul Walter, 32, of Selden, who served in Iraq with the Army in 2005, and received a Purple Heart for injuries he sustained when an IED detonated near him while on duty.
During the presentation, Squillace will moderate a discussion among the men, asking them about their experiences on and off the battlefield and their decisions to join the military. The students will also ask questions.
Sarlo said last year, the students asked questions about what training was like, how their families felt about their decisions to join and whether they had killed anyone.
He said he thought it was an important experience to answer their questions and expose them to the military, especially in a post-9/11 world.
“A lot of the younger kids weren’t really around during 9/11 or right after 9/11,” he said, adding that the terrorist attacks were his motivation for joining the Marines. “They don’t know what it was like and how much things changed that day.”
Quinn said he had a great experience talking with the students last year and looked forward to doing it again. Afterward, he and Sarlo received letters from each of the students present, thanking them for their time and expressing their gratitude.
“I think it was good Ruth brought us in being that we’re younger and they can more closely relate to us,” he said. “I think we really made an impact on their lives – in fact, I know we did from reading all their letters.”
Squillace has also reached out to local veterans from all wars to attend the presentation as guests this year. They will be honored in a special reception in the morning and then led to their seats for the presentation.
“I wanted the students to see other veterans that are living in and among their community,” she said. “You walk among heroes every day.”