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Students Remember
Connecticut's Vietnam War Heroes

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Through articles, anecdotes, and interviews, middle school students from Capt. Nathan Hale School in Coventry, Connecticut, pieced together biographies of the 612 state residents killed in the Vietnam War. They published the biographies so others will get to know the servicemen as well as they have. Included: Descriptions of middle school projects to honor veterans and war dead.


More than 30 years ago, teenager Ana Pederson kissed her fiance, Robert Lucian Mlynarski, good-bye when the U.S. Army shipped him off from their hometown of New Britain, Connecticut, to basic training and then to a tour of duty in Vietnam.

On November 25, 1967, two months after Mlynarski, 21, arrived in Vietnam, he was killed in an ambush while trying to rescue men under his command. Initially, Mlynarski -- known as "Lt. Ski" to his buddies and as "Bobby" to Pederson -- was listed as missing in action; Pederson and Mlynarski's family waited two excruciating weeks before receiving word that his death was confirmed.


Two Capt. Nathan Hale School eighth graders interview Ana Pederson, whose fiance was killed in Vietnam.
(Education World photo)
Pederson's story is just one of 612 stories of Connecticut residents killed during the Vietnam War. In May, those stories were shared, thanks to a group of middle-school students and their teachers who were determined to honor those servicemen.

Sixth, seventh, and eighth graders at Capt. Nathan Hale School in Coventry, Connecticut -- a school named after the town's most famous veteran, American Revolutionary War hero Nathan Hale -- compiled, through research and interviews, short biographies of all 612 servicemen and plan to publish them in a book by this Veterans Day. Eighth graders from the school are scheduled to take part in the opening ceremonies of the 20th anniversary of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., November 7. The students will bring copies of their book and participate in the reading of the 58,229 names of service men and women who died during the war.

A LABOR OF LOVE

Challenge and enrichment teacher Thomas Dzicek proposed the project after reading about the number of state residents -- including two Coventry natives -- killed in Vietnam. The students began work in mid-September 2001. Dzicek oversaw the project with help from reading consultant Joan Zaremba.

The project took on even more significance since the terrorist attacks on September 11 brought the concepts of war and personal sacrifice closer to home for the students. "Before September 11, the project had meaning," said Dzicek, who also served in the military. "After September 11, it took on even more meaning."

Dzicek, whose own passion for the biographies is obvious and infectious, said his inspiration comes from the emotion of the servicemen's friends and family members, as they shared their remembrances with students. "The passion is from the people coming forward," Dzicek told Education World. "Imagine how much more powerful a name is when it's attached to a life."

School staff members also printed the names of all the servicemen killed in action in Vietnam on a black map of the state displayed on a wall across from the auditorium. During ceremonies held November 5, 2001, the auditorium was named Veterans' Auditorium in a tribute to local veterans.


Capt. Nathan Hale School students look at a Connecticut state map on which were printed the names of all 612 state residents killed during the Vietnam War.
(Education World photo)

Pederson, who still finds it difficult to talk about her former fiance, praised the students' efforts. "This is not just an academic exercise, it's reality," she said. "Children learn better by internalizing, and this gives them a better appreciation of freedom and liberty. I'm glad they gave veterans [and their relatives and friends] a chance to talk; a lot of this has been pent up."

"You realize it is a real thing," said Molly, an eighth grader, of the anecdotes about the lives and deaths of young servicemen. "It seems like a bad dream; then you realize it is reality."

Many of the visitors still feel the ache of their loss, and students sense and respond to that sadness.

"It's interesting, but it's hard," said Jillian, another eighth grader.

Although the number of students involved in the project at any one time fluctuates, all 600 Nathan Hale students were invited to participate.

Those working on the biographies frequently were excused from class to do research and interviews, and they made up their class work on their own time.

BRINGING HISTORY TO LIFE

School officials advertised on radio stations and in local newspapers for several months, asking people who knew deceased servicemen to contact the school.

Student interviewers asked those who volunteered six questions and recorded the answers on an interview form. Dzicek stresses to them that their notes must be extremely accurate. Often students are so riveted by the visitors' stories they forget to take notes, Dzicek added.

Although the students are putting in a lot of time on the project, Dzicek said, they are also utilizing a lot of academic skills, such as researching, writing, and using technology -- not to mention the social skills they are building.

"I like participating in this, I feel like I'm doing some good for people," Molly said. "I just think it's interesting to hear what their lives were like. You never think about people this young giving up their lives for their country. It seems like they were even too young to be there."

In doing their research, the students gained some project volunteers as well. One is Jean Risley of Coventry, whose brother, Robert Tillaquist, was 23 when he died in Vietnam in 1965. Risley said she enjoys helping the students.

"It makes my heart feel good," Risley told Education World. "It's so important. The Vietnam War was forgotten and put away; it's important to bring it out."

As part of the project, students also researched the political and social climate of the U.S. during the Vietnam War-era. Students understand that the war was controversial, Dzicek said. "One veteran said it was the sign of a great country that one person could be fighting the war while another was here protesting it."

Paige, an eighth grader, said her father served in Vietnam but does not like to talk about his experiences because so many people disapproved of the war. "But he's glad I'm learning about it," she said.

MEETING THE PEOPLE BEHIND THE NAMES

For some, like Pederson and Risley, the student project coincides with a recent urge to learn everything possible about their loved ones' experiences during the war and about how they died. Pederson said she has been tracking down information about Mlynarski for about three years and has heard from people who were with him the day he died.

Students learned that the men and women listed as missing and deceased are more than just names and service codes. Pederson told the students that Mlynarski was "a happy-go-lucky guy," devoted to his family, who often brought his 8-year-old sister along on their dates.

Paige told Education World that after reading online remembrances about some servicemen, she feels as though she knew them.

Christopher, a sixth grader, said he likes helping others learn more about the veterans. "Now the people who knew them, but didn't know too much about them, can find out more."

DEVOTION TO VETERANS

The biographies are Capt. Nathan Hale School's second big project to honor veterans. In 2000, when a proposal was made for a Veterans' Day program, Dzicek and Zaremba oversaw groups of students who interviewed veterans from Coventry and published a book of their experiences called Coventry's 20th Century Patriots. Students also made a video, with pictures of the veterans and some of their photos and memorabilia, and created a quilt with patches honoring individual veterans.


The quilt students made in honor of local veterans now hangs on the school's wall.
(Education World photo)
Zaremba said she and Dzicek thought 15 or 20 local veterans might participate in last year's project; 48 veterans actually came forward to share their stories. "We had all this history residing in this tiny little town," Dzicek said. The school unveiled the quilt and invited local veterans to a reception on Veterans Day 2000.

Originally, Dzicek did not plan a major follow-up to the quilt project. "Someone said to me, 'How are you going to beat this?'" Dzicek said, and he didn't think the school should try. But when he read about the number of state residents lost during the Vietnam War, he decided all of them should be profiled. As part of the Memorial Day ceremonies, the school leased the Traveling Wall, a replica of the Washington (D.C.) Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

Pederson said she could tell the students are dedicated. "I think it's great for this age group," she said. "It's very ambitious and takes a lot of commitment. You have to be serious -- and you guys are," Pederson said to the students.

If someone were to ask if the project was worth the time, Dzicek said, he would respond that the students had a chance to live history. "The people who were killed had lives; they had aspirations," he said. "It doesn't get more powerful than this."