BANGOR, Maine — The meaning of freedom to middle school and high school students changes considerably after they get to interview a military veteran.
“Now I can see,” Cora Bishop, an eighth-grade student at the Acadia Christian School in Ellsworth, said Thursday as she read from her essay on the topic “What freedom means to me after interviewing a veteran.”
Bishop interviewed veteran Richard Giffard of Brewer, who was drafted into the Korean War and later served in Vietnam.
“He gave his all, all the time,” she said during a Veterans Day ceremony attended by Giffard and many other veterans on Thursday at the Cole Land Transportation Museum. “You have my admiration and respect.”
The Veteran Interview Program, offered through the museum, places students with veterans to help teach youngsters about history, said Gary Cole, the museum’s chairman and president.
“It’s a wonderful program,” he said.
While the students read their essays, several veterans and audience members quietly wept.
Earle Aucoin of Orrington, who joined the U.S. Navy after Pearl Harbor was attacked on Dec. 7, 1941, and served on the submarine Razorback for four years, stood by Meg Nadeau, an eighth-grade student at Winslow Junior High School, while she read her essay about interviewing him.
She spoke about how he was a youngster when he joined, how his efforts during the war saved fellow sailors, and how he saw himself after it was all over.
“He has experienced things no man should,” Nadeau read.
As the Japanese prepared to sign the papers to end World War II, Aucoin looked at himself in a mirror and “he realized the reflection looking back at him was a man,” Nadeau said.
Seven decades later, “I can still see the pride … radiating from his blue eyes,” she said. “It is the love and pride veterans have for their country.”
After Nadeau finished, Aucoin wiped a tear from his cheek and made a joke to change the emotion of the moment.
“It was a good story — you didn’t have to lie,” he quipped.
The audience joined him in his laughter.
The Cole Land Transportation Museum each year selects winning essays from three middle school students and three high school students, who earn honors and U.S. Savings Bonds.
This year, the middle school recipients were Nadeau, who placed first, Bishop, who came in second, and J.W. Harriman, who received third place honors after writing about interviewing his father, Richard Harriman, and World War II veteran Norman Rossignol.
The high school honorees were:
ä First place winner Jacob Valley, a student at Brewer High School, who interviewed veterans John Moore and Paul Lucey.
ä Second place winner Alexander Eremita, a former Brewer High School student who is now a freshman at Johnson & Wales College in Denver, who interviewed veteran Marty Bell.
ä Third place winner Annie Hare, a former Hodgdon High School student who now attends Unity College and who interviewed veteran Louis Tonero.
Valley said it’s clear to him, now that he has interviewed a veteran, why veterans fought so hard.
“They knew what they were fighting for,” he said. “They were fighting for me and they were fighting for you. I am forever in their debt.”
Cole ended the presentation by telling the veterans in the audience that the museum is always looking for volunteers to work with students.
“What a great way to help the next generation understand that freedom is not free,” Cole said.
After the essay contest winners finished reading their reports, the Bangor Band performed a patriotic concert in the museum’s lobby.
Earlier in the day, veterans could enjoy a free breakfast at the annual Bangor Area Breakfast Rotary Club’s pancake breakfast, and during the afternoon or evening could eat for free at the Muddy Rudder restaurant in Brewer, which for the second year in a row provided free meals to veterans to honor their service.
Cadets from the Army and Navy ROTC at the University of Maine also held their annual Veterans Day vigil on the steps of Fogler Library on Thursday.
A joint color guard stood at attention in dress uniforms between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. to honor veterans of the nation’s wars and those in military service.