2016-02-19 / Schools

WWII veteran inspires at Arroyo Elementary

By Hector Gonzalez

LIVING HISTORY—Students at Arroyo Elementary School listen Feb. 11 as Medal of Honor recipient Robert Maxwell talks about his experiences growing up in the 1930s and serving in World War II. At left, Maxwell, 95, watches as kids fill the auditorium. LIVING HISTORY—Students at Arroyo Elementary School listen Feb. 11 as Medal of Honor recipient Robert Maxwell talks about his experiences growing up in the 1930s and serving in World War II. At left, Maxwell, 95, watches as kids fill the auditorium. Teachers and school staff surrounded Army veteran Robert D. Maxwell as he sat in the main office at Arroyo Elementary School last week. One by one, they came up to introduce themselves and shake his hand.

At age 95, Maxwell, the nation’s oldest living Medal of Honor recipient, still travels to speak about his service as an Army communications technician during World War II. He mostly speaks to audiences of middle and high school students in his hometown of Bend, Ore., said his daughter, Verda Maxwell.

But on Feb. 11, the day after participating in a panel at the Reagan Library, he stopped by Arroyo Elementary for a quick visit in response to an invitation from Simi Valley Unified School District.


MICHAEL COONS/Acorn Newspapers MICHAEL COONS/Acorn Newspapers “The dictionary definition of a soldier is ‘one who serves,’” he said in an interview. “When you’re inducted once, you’re there for life.”

On Feb. 10, Maxwell and three other Medal of Honor recipients representing WWII, the Korean War, the Vietnam War and the War on Terror spoke to dozens of SVUSD middle and high school students at the Reagan Library.

The panel event, titled “Lessons in Personal Bravery and Self-Sacrifice,” was part of the Congressional Medal of Honor Foundation’s character development program for upper-grade students. The program draws on the stories and firsthand accounts of war heroes to support classroom lessons about such values as self-sacrifice, patriotism, honor and duty.

This year, SVUSD officials are pioneering the characterbuilding program in the younger grades. Maxwell’s visit to Arroyo marked the first time a Medal of Honor recipient came to speak to elementary school children in Simi Valley.

Many principles taught in the Medal of Honor Foundation program can be used to promote character development for elementary students, said Kathleen Roth, SVUSD’s director of elementary curriculum.

“Even if it’s just giving them key words like honor and courage,” she said.

For children as young as kindergartners, “obviously some of the language of the war vignettes, it’s a little bit too real,” she said, adding the nascent program focuses more on the qualities represented by the Medal of Honor, not on the realities of combat.

“We figured we can work with elementary teachers and develop something that would be ageappropriate. That’s what we’re working for,” Roth said.

Inquiring minds

Arroyo’s students wanted to know where Maxwell fought in the war.

“We started in North Africa, then went up to Sicily. And from Sicily we went to Italy, and from the peninsula of Italy, we went to northern France,” he told them.

Born in Boise, Idaho, Maxwell grew up on his family’s farm in Kansas until he was drafted at age 21. He trained as a gunner, but the Army gave him the job of communications technician, which meant stringing telephone wire from the front lines to officers in command posts in the rear.

According to the Medal of Honor Society, on Sept. 7, 1944, after establishing a line of communications with headquarters near the town of Besancon, France, Maxwell and three other technicians came under heavy attack by the Germans.

Enemy soldiers fired machine guns and launched grenades from as close as 10 feet, but Maxwell, armed with only a pistol, and his fellow soldiers fought back.

When a grenade landed in the middle of the small group of Americans, Maxwell grabbed a blanket and threw himself on top of the explosive. It ripped through his upper body and tore off a piece of his right foot, but his actions saved the men he was with that day.

But he never mentioned any of that at Arroyo. He described the scene but carefully avoided talking about the actual battle.

“We were behind a stone wall behind a house, in a defensive position so that if any enemy came up to attack the command post we were able to keep them away,” he told students.

Personal mission

As Maxwell fielded questions at Arroyo, retired U.S. Army Sgt. First-Class Leroy Petry, another Medal of Honor recipient, spoke to students at Sinaloa Middle School, describing how he lost much of his right arm in an intense firefight against the Taliban in Afghanistan.

As they listened to the 37-yearold Army Ranger veteran, the ninth-graders passed around his prosthetic arm and closely examined its robotic fingers.

Like Maxwell, but decades later, and in a far different country, Petry found himself under heavy enemy fire on May 28, 2006, when a grenade landed in the middle of his small group of men. Instinctively, he picked up the bomb.

“As I was throwing it away, it exploded,” he said. “Completely took the hand off.”

Before he was wounded, Petry deployed six times to Afghanistan and twice to Iraq, but it was never the adventure of combat that drove him to sign up for the Army after high school, he told the middle schoolers.

“I didn’t want to go to war, I wanted to make a difference,” Petry said. “I wanted to make a difference for our country, and I wanted to make a difference to the people of Afghanistan.”

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