The study in contrast came together last week in Fran Curtis’ classroom at the Joseph A. Ovick School in Brentwood. Sponsored by the Contra Costa County Office of Education, the two men were there not because of their differences, but for something they had in common: war.
The elder man was Retired U.S. Army Sgt. Vincent Silva, a survivor of World War II’s infamous Bataan Death March of 1942 and prisoner of the Japanese for three and a half years. Students sat transfixed as they heard stories of torture and abuse at the hands of his captors. Delivered in detail that surprised the students, Silva’s message was also more upbeat than they expected.
“He remembered everything, even though he’s 91,” said Lavonce Juarez. “And he kept giving us a positive message, telling us to stay in school.”
Chris Maldonado said he was surprised that Silva wasn’t bitter toward all Japanese, considering the torture he had endured. “He said that not all Japanese were bad,” he said. “It was just the people they were fighting at the time.”
The younger of the two men was Army Reservist Maj. Eric Boettcher, who recently returned from Iraq with his second Bronze Star. As the chief of operations of the Mosul Reconstruction Operations Center, Boettcher assisted the Mosul government with its rebuilding efforts and oversaw humanitarian assistance. He’s been deployed to various parts of the world four times (twice to Iraq), but nevertheless impressed the students with how ordinary he was.
“He’s just a regular guy,” said Julie Esquivel. “He has to have a job here, too, and take care of his family.”
Boettcher said he told the students about his experiences because he believes it’s his duty.
“My calling and my responsibility as a returning veteran is to tell them the real stories, the real successes our soldiers do out there,” he said. What American troops accomplish is done with not only the spiritual support of those at home, but the materials donated to the cause as well. Much of what is sent overseas contributes to the troops’ well being by allowing them to provide day-to-day needs to the people of Iraq, and in order to keep the donations flowing, he said, “I need to get out and tell my story.” He credited the East County community for the many donated supplies that he and his unit used to help the people of Mosul.
The classroom meeting was actually the second for the two veterans. The previous weekend, they had been the guests of Brentwood Café owner Paul Boulos, who hosted a welcome-home breakfast for Boettcher that was also a thank-you meal for Silva. It was there that Curtis, himself a veteran of Vietnam, met the men and invited them to his classroom.
“I think they (students) were really shocked at the education level” of the two, Curtis said. In addition to the exhortations to stay in school, the students’ education will also benefit from the visit via Silva’s donation of a copy of his book “Senso Owari,” which documents his ordeal. Curtis will use the book in his English class as an alternative selection for Character-based Reading, in which students are presented with real-life challenges that will or can be altered by their choices in life.
– Penny Cannon contributed to this story