For students in the Seneca Valley Senior High School honors U.S. History class, getting up close and personal with the triumphs and the cruelty of war is part of the curriculum.
Their teacher, Jim Lucot, believes the best way to learn about history is to meet the people who lived it. That’s why he brings in war veterans to meet his students.
One veteran, former S/Sgt. Louis McAfee, U.S. Army, lives just around the corner from many students.
At 17 years old, Mr. McAfee left Pennsylvania for the Army. By age 18, he was fighting a war—one he’d never talk about for 45 more years.
“Nothing prepared me for the Korean War,” McAfee, now 81, said. “I thought I was going to something I’d seen in a movie until the first shell came at me. My belly just sunk. I wasn’t prepared for what I had to see.”
Like many Korean War veterans, McAfee chose not to talk about the war because of the painful memories. Of the 6.8 million who served, three million died. The U.S. lost 40,000 troops, and more than 92,000 were wounded.
“It never leaves you,” he said. “You’re scared all the time. The enemy was always around us and behind us. You never knew when you’d get a bullet in the head. You never knew when you’d have to see a fellow soldier die.”
McAfee joined the Army in 1949, and he went to Korea in July of 1950—just a month after the war began. He came home in 1952. McAfee then stayed silent about his experience until 1997, when he took a trip to the Korean War Veteran’s Memorial in Washington, D.C.
“I knelt down in front of it and cried like a baby,” he said. “I just broke down. But then I said, ‘Maybe I can do something.’”
So McAfee put up a memorial of his own in his front yard in Cranberry. He started talking about the war because he was motivated by those who never made it back.
“Those 8,100 MIAs... I never forget them,” he said. “We can’t bring them home, and they need to be remembered.”
Every year, Lucot explores the Korean War with his Honors U.S. History class. He said bringing in a veteran like McAfee gives students a deeper understanding of what they’ve learned, but more importantly, of the people in their own community who fought for their country.
“When he talks with the kids, it’s like having Santa Claus,” Lucot said. “It makes everything real and validates me and what I’m teaching.”
In February, McAfee spoke to about 20 students in Lucot’s class.
He talked about the battles and the strategy. He showed students maps and gave them timelines. But what really grabbed the students’ attention was what McAfee had seen and experienced first-hand.
“What was your favorite pastime?” asked Emily Bearnd. “Did you ever get to do anything for fun?”
McAfee walked away from the map of Asia, and his face lit up.
“Oh, you mean ‘R and R,’” he said. “That’s Rest and Recuperation. I took mine in Japan, and I was in heaven. I hadn’t bathed in three months, and I was given a clean uniform. And the ice cream and milk—I couldn’t get enough of it. It was just wonderful.”
Being a living history lesson is one reason McAfee feels a sense of satisfaction coming to the class. But, he said, he also wants to instill some of the values he learned into the students he meets.
“Commitment… I’d write that word across the sky,” he said. “I don’t care if you’re going to college or getting a job. You have to be committed. You have to appreciate dedication and know what it means to have honor.”
Lucot’s students certainly honor their experience with McAfee and with other veterans who visit their class.
“Every Veteran’s Day, I get about 50 letters from students,” McAfee said. “I read them and tears just come streaming down my face. It means so much to me.”
McAfee has students show up at his door unannounced to interview him or take pictures at his memorial—and he loves it.
“They call Korea the ‘Forgotten War,’” he said. “But these kids are helping to change that. And I’m never going to forget them.”
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