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Volunteer Spotlight - Derek Sallay (February 2005)

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Derek Sallay is a Senior at Poway High School in Poway, California. For his Senior Project, Derek chose to participate in the Veterans History Project by interviewing World War II veterans from the San Diego area. As his mother Barbara says, "Derek chose to combine two categories of the Senior Project, Academic/Major and Community Contributor, because of his passion for World War II history and his belief in what the Veterans History Project is trying to do."

According to the school's principal, the goal of the Senior Project...is for students to pursue a specific interest connected to their futures, while honing their skills in research, organization and presentation along the way.

Over the past few years, Derek has attended several WWII-related events and has a list of vets he is intending to interview. By May 2005 he plans to submit eight to 10 interviews to the Veterans History Project. Recently Derek entered the following essay in the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) Voice of Democracy Competition, and won a local scholarship. The theme for 2004 was "Celebrating Our Veterans' Service."

Celebrating Our Veterans' Service
by Derek Sallay

The crosses and Stars of David extend in all directions, like a somber white-capped sea. Carefully and respectfully, I walk down one of the hundreds of rows, feeling both pity and deep gratitude for these men whose lives were cut short 57 years ago.

It is a peaceful, sun-drenched Sunday afternoon in Normandy. I am a 14-year-old boy in awe of the American Cemetery above Omaha Beach, the same cemetery where the elderly Private Ryan paid homage to his fallen captain. Now I stand on this hallowed, windswept cliff, among the thousands of men who were slaughtered on the sandy shores below and in the hedgerows to the south.

It is silent here. Bullets no longer pierce the air, shells no longer let out their deadly screams, and bombers no longer drone ominously above. It is silent, too, on the other side of the Atlantic, where a grateful nation basks in the rays of freedom. If not for these men, that freedom may have vanished forever.

As I tour Omaha Beach, Pointe du Hoc, and Utah Beach, I age much more than a single day. World War II is not just a book or a movie to me anymore. A generation of young men charged up this Atlantic Wall, tore it down and destroyed the oppression and genocide within. Now it is a strand of lazy resort towns filled with tourists and laughing children. The only tangible reminders of war are the countless battle memorials and the remains of Mulberry harbors decaying in the Channel waters.

An indescribable feeling wells up inside me, one of dedication to the "Greatest Generation" that cannot be satisfied by mere gratitude. Veterans of WWII deserve something more from me: a conscious effort to honor and preserve their sacrifice.

It has been over three years since my day in Normandy, and finally I am fulfilling that goal. My high school requires me to embark upon a "senior project" that will enrich my community; instead, I choose something that will enrich my country. As part of the nationwide Veterans History Project, I reach out to WWII veterans, interview them, and record their stories for archiving in the Library of Congress, so the children of today ~ and of the future ~ will appreciate what was done for them.

And my job is to listen.

When I sit down with these men and women I am not just an impartial reporter; I am the means through which their names and their stories will live on.

For my first official interview, I chose a longtime family friend who served in the infantry in WWII. Just a week after landing at Normandy, he took mortar shrapnel to the head and bullets to the leg and stomach. I have respected him my entire life, but after hearing how he later rejoined his unit in Germany and earned a Silver Star, he has the aura of a hero.

Recently, I attended a veterans' ceremony at an old Navy chapel that has been converted to a small but striking war museum. That day, tables were set up around the perimeter, and on each table sat a humble presentation of one man's war: posterboards covered in grainy black-and-white photographs, faded telegrams, and WWII-era maps. Beside each one stood a veteran eager to tell his story. I was the only high-schooler there. I listened to a former fighter pilot talk about being starved and tortured by the Gestapo, the anguish still visible in his face sixty years later.

One doesn't need to conduct a formal, videotaped interview with a veteran to celebrate his or her service to America. It can be as simple as a grown-up daughter asking her father to finally talk about the Battle of the Bulge, a curious teenager asking his grandpa about fighting the Japanese in the Pacific, or even a total stranger, like me, gathering as much information as he can about the contributions of veterans to our country.

WWII veterans tend to receive first priority because of their dwindling numbers. But it is just as crucial to listen to the stories of veterans who served in the icy hills of Korea, the sweltering jungles of Vietnam, and the scorching deserts of the Middle East.

All I am determined to do is listen, to shed more light upon the courageous service of our veterans, and to immortalize them for my own children and my children's children.

Former President Bill Clinton said it best in a speech on the 50th anniversary of D-Day in 1994. He concluded his address to veterans and their families at Omaha Beach with the words, "To you who brought us here, I promise, we will be the new pathfinders, for we are the children of your sacrifice."

We must honor veterans while they are still with us. By listening to and preserving their stories, we will continue to celebrate their service long after they are gone.

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