Roanoke Avenue security guard Walter Brown, who served in the Gulf War, speaks to third graders about his experiences in the military. Photo: Katie Blasl

The room of third graders listed in hushed awe as Barry Gilmore recounted the events that led to the Purple Heart sitting on a desk at the front of the classroom.

One student had just asked if he had lost any limbs while serving in the Vietnam War. Gilmore chuckled.

“No, but I carry a bit of extra baggage in this leg,” he said. “There was a rocket, and when it exploded, metal fragments came out and hit both of my legs. This leg still has some in it.” He gestured to his leg and smiled. “Which is bad, because I can’t have an MRI.”

Gilmore was one of four veterans who visited third grade classrooms at Roanoke Avenue Elementary in advance of Veteran’s Day this weekend. For the students, it was an intimate chance to learn about the sacrifices military members make in service to the United States – made even more intimate by the fact that most of the veterans are current employees at the school.

Barry Gilmore, Vietnam veteran, helps a student try on a military jacket. Photo: Katie Blasl

Walter Brown, a beloved security guard at Roanoke Avenue, was greeted with delighted shouts of “Mr. Brown!” as students filed into his classroom.

The third graders gave him their immediate attention as he pulled out his dog tags from his service at the United States Army during the Gulf War.

“They give you these to identify you in case you are killed in war,” Brown explained. “They don’t burn.”

Brown talks to students about his experience in the Gulf War. Photo: Katie Blasl

The students were particularly enthralled with the props and photos veterans passed around the classroom. When Gilmore asked for volunteers to try on some military-style jackets, almost all the students raised their hands.

This year is the first time Roanoke Avenue has held such an event for multiple classes and with multiple veterans.

“It’s great, because they’re all local – our crossing guard, our maintenance guy, our security guard,” said Thomas Payton, principal of Roanoke Avenue. “These veterans are adults the kids see every day.”

Third graders examine Gilmore’s Purple Heart, which was on display at the front of the classroom. Photo: Katie Blasl

Hearing first-hand about veterans’ experiences has also changed the perspectives of many students on the military, according to third grade teacher Gary Karlson.

“One of the students asked, ‘Why did you join?’ And Mr. Gilmore said, ‘Well, I didn’t join – I got drafted,’” Karlson said. “And we got to have a conversation about the draft, which is something they hopefully will never have to live through, but is important to understand.

“They heard a lot of things today that didn’t fit in with what they knew about the military,” Karlson said.

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Katie Blasl
Katie, winner of the 2016 James Murphy Cub Reporter of the Year award from the L.I. Press Club, is a reporter, editor and web developer for the LOCAL news websites. A Riverhead native, she is a 2014 graduate of Stony Brook University. Email Katie