FORT KNOX, Ky. (June 2, 2014) -- Often history can seem boring, dry and irrelevant. But what if you had the chance to walk the grounds, touch the sites and talk to the people who shaped that period of history? For a few lucky high school students, they get to do just that.
One Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps, or JROTC, high school program from each state is invited to the 70th D-Day anniversary commemoration in Normandy, France, this year. Cadets from across the United States will walk in the steps of those who shaped history and be fortunate enough to meet a few of the World War II veterans still able to participate in this historic event.
Earl Hurrey, the selection chairman and military liaison for 70th D-Day anniversary event, said the units were selected by a committee that is made up of 25 people, and all the members are active within the communities in their home areas.
Participating Cadets will visit the St. James American Cemetery and the General Patton Cemetery, also known as American Cemetery, in Normandy, for special ceremonies.
"They will visit Omaha Beach for the opening ceremony, and march in the D-Day parade," he explained. "The parade route will go through the center of town in Sainte Mere Eglise -- the street also knows as 'Dwight D. Eisenhower Avenue.'"
He added that VIPs from the Allied forces that made up the invasion -- British, Americans, Canadians, French, and Dutch -- will be on hand, and Cadets will get to meet international World War II veterans. They will be provided the opportunity to view the re-enactment of the paratrooper drop that commemorates the liberation of the village of Sainte-Mere-Eglise. The Cadets will also get to spend a day in Paris where they will help celebrate the 125th anniversary of the dedication of the Eiffel Tower this year.
Army JROTC Cadet Emma Bahm, a junior at Gettysburg High School in Gettysburg, Penn., said she wants to honor the D-Day vets for the sacrifice they made and walk where they walked. However, for Bahm, it is more personal than that.
"Two of my great-grandfathers stormed the beaches during that time, and one of them was killed shortly afterward," she explained. "But I'm also excited to see the city of Paris and the Eiffel Tower. They are on my bucket list."
Cadets from other schools also said they were excited to be invited to the ceremonies and discussed their own lists of expectations.
As a junior from Benson High School in Omaha Neb., Cadet William Combs said his main motivation for participating was to honor D-Day veterans, and see where the "greatest generation" fought. In preparation for the trip, Combs did extensive research on D-day, which included speaking with two World War II D-Day veterans. Part of his research included Paris -- a city he is excited to see and explore as much for its history as its beauty.
"My expectations are pretty high. I can't wait to see the actual place where everything happened," he explained. "I am excited to represent my country and my state, honored to have the opportunity, and honored to be (one of) the last generation to hear the stories from those who survived."
In fact, Combs' JROTC group plans to bring back some sand from the beaches around the historic site, and present it to local veterans during an honor ceremony.
Other JROTC units are also planning on making presentations when they return home.
The Army and Navy Academy JROTC program, located in Carlsbad Calif., will host a Normandy Reflection Ceremony Sept. 11, 2014, where Cadets will share their Normandy experience, what it meant to them and how they think it will shape their lives.
From the only school in California chosen to attend, Cadets like Elvis Indrieri understand the magnitude of their selection.
"I hope to create an experience that will be long-lasting and memorable so I can share my experience with (the community and) future generations," Indrieri said. "And I hope to speak to some of the Soldiers who were there on D-Day."
But getting to France wasn't easy. Cadets had to raise the money through various fundraising projects, and competing interests gave Cadets reason to reconsider. See related article in Related Links box.
Cadet Jessica Situ, a senior at Francis Lewis High School, N.Y., said her family helped her raise the money, but she also participated in the different fundraising events. This trip is important to her because she said she wanted to explore the sites where history was made, and meet veterans who fought in World War II.
She is so committed, in fact, that she is knowingly going to miss what is considered a milestone in high school -- her senior prom.
"I think that marching in the Sainte-Mere-Eglise D-Day parade means more to me because it's an honor to be chosen to represent New York in the parade," she explained. "I get to meet veterans and explore historic sites, which is something I enjoy doing a lot, and I will participate in history."
Situ's classmate Cadet Joshua Cohen, will also miss his prom, but he thinks this trip will have lasting impact on his life that will be worth the sacrifice.
"Since I learned about this trip and decided to attend it, I really wanted to learn as much about D-Day and what these veterans went through as possible," Cohen explained. "I've learned a lot of interesting things but none of it will match up to the real personal stories I will hear. A lot of these veterans are getting up there in age and may not be around for a 71st anniversary. I want to be able to pass on these valuable experiences and lessons that they will teach me."
But as much as senior prom is historically viewed as a right-of-passage, there is something that is much more important to any senior -- graduation.
Several Cadets from Gettysburg High School and from the Army and Navy Academy will miss their high school commencements in favor of attending the D-Day events. In fact, Gettysburg's graduation is on June 6.
"We have six graduating seniors on the trip, so we'll conduct a graduation ceremony in Sainte-Mere-Eglise on June 4," said Retired Lt. Col. Michael Wertz, the JROTC senior instructor. "The plan is to upload video of the event for playback during the graduation ceremony back home on June 6, and link in to observe the ceremony from our hotel that night."
For some of the Cadets, participation in something as historic and memorable is more important than a graduation.
"I have only been (at this school) for two years and remembering those who gave their lives is more important than my graduation," said Cadet Dakota Peterson.
As a senior who will miss his graduation, Cadet Bryant Claeys had a family member at D-day so his decision was fairly easy.
"My grandfather fought at D-Day and I would like to honor him and all the other veterans," he explained. "But I expect it will be a fun learning trip with many cultural experiences for us."
For most of the Cadets, this trip boils down to one of cultural experience, educational opportunity, and historical significance.
"The fact that I have this chance to talk to the few people left who were there and remember it, really does make me feel like I'm the luckiest person in the world," explained Cadet Miriam Ramos, a senior at Cedar Shoals High School, Athens, Georgia. "They changed the world and did so much for the people they love and the country they love. This will be a life-changing experience."