Valentines for Vets: Students 'speed date' vets to learn local stories of service

COLUMBIA, SC (WIS) - Students at Richland Northeast High School were "speed dating" on this Valentine's Day. Their dates? Local veterans.

It's the seventh year for Valentines for Vets at Richland Northeast and it works exactly the way it sounds -- except it's more like group speed dating. The students are gathered around one vet for about 10 minutes before they move on to a different table. By the end of the day they've heard several first-hand accounts of what it's like to serve.

"You get to move to another veteran and speed date with that veteran," one student said. "So, it's Valentine's Day. You might actually have a date today."

The room was filled with laughter as teacher Perry McLeod joked about a day of "speed dating."

"Valentine's Day is a day you want to show people how much you care for them. So, what a perfect day to show our veterans in our community how much we love them and how care for them and thank them for their service," McLeod said.

Each year the school brings in veterans who've served in one or even multiple U.S. wars like the Cold War, Vietnam, and World War II -- vets like Richard Gimmi who was born in 1921.

"During the era where aviation was looked upon as a great adventure," Gimmi said. "From the time I was knee high to a grasshopper, I wanted to be a pilot."

Gimmi says he has a vivid memory of his first introduction to war his junior year of college.

"I was home that weekend, listening to the radio, and when I heard the announcement that Pearl Harbor had been attacked, I said to my parents, 'I'm joining the Army Air Corps,'" Gimmi said.

It's a similar story to that of Albert Hamilton.

"I was laying on the floor reading the comics. I was 16 years old in high school and they broke in on the broadcast. They said, 'We have to announce that World War II has just started.' Japan bombed Pearl Harbor," Hamilton said.

Hamilton joined the military right out of high school, but his parents were cautious.

"They weren't too happy about it, but they knew I wanted to go," Hamilton said.

The World War II veteran seemed happy to recall times past to the students at Richland Northeast.

"I just love to talk to these kids," Hamilton said.

Deviannah Perkins, a senior at Richland Northeast High School, has been taking part in Valentines for Vets throughout her high school career.

"What we learn in text books is like, this happened on this date but hearing it from veterans, I get to hear it from their point of view – some prisoners of war or friends losing friends in battle," Perkins said.

"When they go home and tell somebody about it, these guys' legacies live on and their stories will live on. So, I'm trying to preserve those," McLeod said

Gimmi said he hopes students take this message from their time with the veterans.

"Freedom is not free! If things don't always go the way you think they should, that's no reason to give up," Gimmi said.

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