Living in a state such as Hawaii, being surrounded by military families is not an abnormal environment. With all that they give to the country, they are appreciated and recognized for their bravery, and just like today, soldiers who sacrificed their lives decades ago, are also honored and remembered. This past summer, Senior Travis Afuso and Social Studies teacher Amy Boehning were one pair of 15 that flew to Washington D.C. and France to further progress in a project that they have been working on since January. The project works with the Normandy: Sacrifice For Freedom Albert H. Small Student and Teacher Institute program. The institute selects student-teacher pairs to do research on a soldier from their state, who sacrificed their life during “Operation Overlord,” also known as D-Day, during World War II. After tremendous amounts of research, Afuso and Boehning finally got to visit their soldier, First Sergeant William A. Andersen, at his grave site in the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial.
“Being a person who wants to pursue a career in the military, I really wanted to have that ability to visit the important sites (in France), but also to really understand what does it mean to sacrifice, what does it mean to be in the service, to put your life on the line, and if necessary to give your life as that last full measure of devotion to your country. Getting to read about, understand and come to know a person who made that very same sacrifice, I think was very important and it’s an inspiration for me going forward to continue on that path of military service,” said Afuso.
The soldiers who sacrificed their lives left behind a legacy that Americans today can learn from and be inspired by. “We learn from the past. We see even today, when people don’t understand the past, we make the same mistakes. We, as social studies teachers, want to teach a cause and effect so that we understand why things are the way they are today,” explained Boehning. Afuso added, “Albert H. Small decided that he doesn’t want the next young generations of Americans to grow up not understanding the sacrifices that occurred before them. As time goes on, World War II seems more like the distant past, it doesn’t seem like something that younger people can appreciate.”
First Sergeant William A. Andersen had many ties leading back to the state of Hawaii. His family was part of the first group of Norwegian immigrants to move to Hawaii and work on the plantations. They first stayed in Maui, and then eventually moved to Oahu where First Sergeant Andersen’s father joined the Hawaii Army National Guard. First Sergeant Andersen went on to attend Roosevelt High School, where he played on the football team and in band, reminding Afuso and Boehning of the students that they are surrounded by everyday. “To look into his life, and to really understand who he was from different letters, different yearbook photos that we found, we were able to put together the pieces of his life,” expressed Afuso. “Having that opportunity to, in a sense, get to meet someone who fought in conflict and who gave his life so that we could be here today, allows younger Americans like myself to really understand how fortunate we are to live in this country, and to have been in a place where there’s so many who’ve been willing to give their lives for people that they’re never going to meet.”
As Afuso and Boehning studied First Sergeant Andersen for months, they each began to develop personal connections with the soldier. “You become attached to your soldier and that was the hardest part. There was a moment when we were doing the reading where I knew that my soldier wasn’t going to make it. He’s not going to survive this battle. It makes it real because they’re just names, that’s what it starts off (as). They’re just a name on a grave, and all of a sudden they become real, and then you really want to tell their story, you want everybody to know about them,” Boehning said. “My nephew joined the army, chose the exact same position, training at the same spots, doing the same thing (as First Sergeant Andersen). I could compare the two of them, and it really made a connection for me.” Afuso added, “I can see myself in (First Sergeant Andersen), that young enthusiasm, that willingness to serve, the desire to help this country. Some people might be discouraged by thinking about the fact that someone so much like myself, in terms of what we want to do, was killed. But I understand that despite that risk, someone still has to do it and if it’s not me, then who is it going to be?”
At the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial, Afuso read to First Sergeant Andersen a eulogy that he had prepared. “It was an emotional experience, and to be able to follow it up with honoring his memory with a eulogy was very touching. I have a deep respect for our veterans and especially those who made the ultimate sacrifice,” Afuso expressed. “Every decision in history has consequences, both positive and negative. When you think of military history and limit it to numbers, it does not mean much. When you realize that they were real people, it becomes much more impactful,” added the institute’s Director of Programs Lynne O’Hara. “When (our students) honor (the soldiers) in Normandy, they are real people and become part of the student and the teacher forever. That’s very powerful to experience.”
After reading his eulogy, Afuso stayed behind to honor other soldiers who were buried at the cemetery. “It was my personal mission to pay my respects to all the soldiers, not just my own, but to all of those who were being recognized and even some of those who weren’t part of this project,” Afuso explained. Boehning added, “(I am) extremely proud of (Afuso), he represented not only himself well, but our school well, our state well and this program. He really took an interest in learning history, he dove into the readings, he participated in the discussions. When we were in Washington D.C., even within that group, he always took a leadership role and worked hard to represent our soldier well, and to be able to make the soldier shine. It wasn’t about him, it was about the whole experience.”
Studying a person through documents and research was not the same as actually getting to visit the grave site in person, which opened up different emotions and aspirations. “My goal is to help students become informed citizens. What I’m doing is preparing students to lead and to take over for not just our community, but our state and our nation. What I saw (on the trip) was (Afuso) understanding the regular soldier, and it gives him an empathy, an understanding of each individual. It’ll make (Afuso) a stronger leader in the future,” stated Boehning.
Afuso and Boehning plan on finishing the project by creating two presentations about First Sergeant Andersen, and hope to share his life with Hawaii, and the rest of the world.