Eastmont Community School hosted more than 150 veterans on Wednesday, providing them with lunch and entertainment in honor of the upcoming Veterans Day.
After lunch, some veterans returned the favor to Eastmont, a parochial elementary school of about 175 students, by going into classrooms to share their stories. Jack Matthews, a retired Marine lieutenant colonel who served 24 years, discussed his career, which spanned from Vietnam to Beirut to teaching at the Marine Corps War College in Quantico, Va. It all began, he told a group of fourth- and fifth-graders, with a basketball scholarship to Notre Dame.
“Without an education, I'd be nowhere,” said Matthews, 72.
After graduating, he joined the Marines and served in Vietnam, where his foot almost had to be amputated after he triggered a booby trap.
“Anybody who tells you they were not afraid in combat is lying,” Matthews said. “There were two Navy doctors talking about taking the foot off, and I grabbed one of them and begged them not to.”
Matthews kept his foot. It was removed in 2009, but not before it carried him across the finish line at 11 Marine Corps Marathons. For his service in Vietnam, he earned two Purple Hearts.
After his injury, he served as a peacekeeper in Lebanon, leading a unit that left just prior to the 1983 Beirut barracks bombing that killed 241 American servicemen — the deadliest day in Marine Corps history since Iwo Jima.
“This is what we flew when we were in Beirut,” Matthews said, holding up an aged flag as the students murmured with excitement. “It probably belongs in the Marine Corps Museum, but I kept it.”
Throughout his talk, Matthews quizzed the students, asking them to point to the places he had served on the map. He also showed off more artifacts, including letters, POW bracelets and medals, that illustrated the U.S. history lesson he was entwining with his personal story.
History was clearly important to Matthews, who holds a Ph.D. in the field from Washington State University with a focus on American foreign policy in Lebanon.
“Veterans themselves need to feel a connection with this generation; they're getting lost,” said fourth-grade teacher Debbie Loudermilk. “I feel that there are so many celebrations but that they're not always heartfelt.”
The students hung onto Matthews' words, and when it was time for questions, hands shot up across the room. One of the students, Parker Harrison, said that his favorite part was “seeing all of the different kinds of legs (Matthews) had for showering and running. That was really cool.”