School lessons of military conflict and escapes from captivity took on a whole new meaning Friday morning as students at The Foundation Academy listened to veterans reliving heroic stories from their time fighting for freedom.
Dennis “Dizzy” Gillespie and Andy Ramotnik explained to the room of children that they both came from regular backgrounds but went on to live extraordinary lives through military service. They emphasized the message that anyone at the school can follow a similar path if they want.
“I remember being their age, and I know there’s a lot they can learn from my story,” said Ramotnik, 94, a retired Air Force master sergeant who escaped from German captivity twice during World War II.
The candid discussion was part of a celebration that kicked off a partnership between the pre-kindergarten through 12th grade school and two local organizations that hope to one day educate many people like the ones they impacted Friday.
The school plans to use the partnership with the Cecil Field POW/MIA Memorial and the U.S. Air Power Museum as a way to learn about the rich military history in Northeast Florida, said Principal Nadia Hionides. “We use the city as a classroom, and we invite the city to come here to the school,” she said.
Representatives from both the future museum and the future national monument were given quilts made by the students to hang in their buildings when they open for business. Both the monument at the former Cecil Field Naval Air Station on the Westside and the museum at Jacksonville Executive at Craig Airport are more than a year from opening their doors.
Lyn Corley, a local historian, assisted with the collaboration and helped commission the art project. “The school had the foresight to believe it [the partnership] would happen, and now we have these two amazing quilts made by students from all grade levels,” Corley said.
The quilt for the future memorial at Cecil Field features pictures of servicemen who were either prisoners of war or missing in action.
Garrett Woolverton, 16, and his friend Clay Vandiver III, 18, were two of the students who helped with the quilt project. Vandiver said one of the hardest parts was finding pictures of the men who went missing, and Woolverton said he worked a lot with the sewing machine to connect all the patches.
“It makes me feel special in a way because they went missing to give me my freedom,” Vandiver said.
He said he was intrigued to find out most of the men on the quilt were relatively normal guys who went through extremely harsh conditions because they believed in fighting for their country.
Ramotnik echoed that thought during his speech, telling the students he was a regular guy.
He asked the students questions as he told them about jumping from an airplane into Nazi territory where he was captured almost immediately. He was 20 at the time, barely older than some of the people in the audience.
“Young students are my favorite type of people to talk to because they have no idea what it was like for me,” he said.
Gillespie is a retired Navy captain who flew jets out of Cecil Field in the 1970s.
He started his story by talking about the first funeral he ever attended. He was 10 and he couldn’t figure out why two Marines wearing white gloves were so careful about folding the flag that had been draped over his grandfather’s casket before they handed it to his grandmother.
Gillespie said his father explained on the way home that it was meant as a way to respect the man for his service to the country, and one day Gillespie’s father would have a flag draped over his own casket.
He brought both of those flags Friday, showed them to the audience and let them know that they would never be unfolded. Gillespie told them one day his casket would be covered with an American flag, and his wife would take it home and pass it on to his son.
Gillespie followed in the footsteps of the men who came before him. He eventually rose to the point where he commanded a jet squadron headed for combat, and he became close with all of the pilots who served under him.
One of them was Michael Scott Speicher — a pilot from the area who was shot down on the first day of Operation Desert Storm.
“Nobody really knows what happened to Scott Speicher,” Gillespie said.
He said Speicher probably suffered terrible injuries when he ejected into the desert, and the government spent 18 years looking for him before finding his grave near the spot where his jet went down.
Gillespie told the students Speicher’s remains were returned to Northeast Florida, and he is now buried at the Jacksonville National Cemetery.
Hionides said the students live in a community with a rich military history, and as these partnerships grow there will be many more chances to learn about things that happened in their own backyards.
A picture of Speicher is on the quilt presented to the museum. The students put that quilt together, and Friday they got a chance to hear from a man who knew the man behind the picture.