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American History Comes Alive for Belmont High School Students

By Krys Murphy

Congressional Medal of Honor recipients exiting helicopterMore than 300 Belmont High School (BHS) sophomores lined the parking lot with cameras or cell phones in hand, waiting to take a picture of the invited guests who happened to be arriving by helicopter.  You could feel the anticipation in the air as one student said, “This is exciting,” and another said, “Where is the helicopter?”  A passerby may have thought a rock star was about to land, but these students were anxiously awaiting the arrival of a different kind of celebrity—two recipients of the Congressional Medal of Honor who came to speak to the students on September 16.

As if out of an action movie, a Blackhawk helicopter lands in the softball field near the tennis courts off the main parking lot at BHS. Dirt, leaves and grass kick up a dust cloud, and the two Medal of Honor Recipients emerge from the helicopter, flown by the Massachusetts National Guard, and walk into a crowd of students, school officials, and local dignitaries such as Superintendent John Phelan, Assistant Superintendent Janice Darias, BHS Principal Daniel Richards, Town Administrator David Kale, Senator William Brownsberger, Representative David Rogers, District Attorney Marion Ryan, and Belmont Chief of Police Richard McLaughlin. The BHS Marauders Marching Band provided the perfect patriotic touch.

The Recipients, Thomas Norris, age 71, retired U. S. Navy SEAL, who completed a ground rescue of two downed pilots deep within enemy territory in the Quang Tri Province during the Vietnam war, and William Swenson, age 36, a Captain in the U.S. Army, who during the battle of Ganjgal, in the Afghan province of Kunar, got many troops to safety when the Taliban fighters ambushed them, were at the high school as part of the Congressional Medal of Honor Society’s community visits.

The Society’s annual convention is in Boston this week.  This is the third time the convention has been held in Boston. There are 78 living Medal of Honor Recipients, the highest award given to an individual serving in the Armed Services of the United States, for showing courage in the face of danger against the enemy.  Director of Social Studies Deborah McDevitt says General Robert Foley, a BHS graduate from the class of 1959 and a member of the Congressional Medal of Honor Society, suggested Belmont High School be one of the schools on the speakers list.

McDevitt was very receptive to the idea, and says they are focusing their sophomore American History classes over the course of the year to answer questions such as what is America’s place in the world, “By having students hear the stories and lessons from the Congressional Medal of Honor recipients at the beginning of the year, they are going to have a much richer understanding of the wars our nation fought and the relationships and alliances we’ve had with other countries,” says McDevitt.  “This will ground their studies with real-life meaning for all the work they’ll be doing for the rest of the year.”

Richards and McDevitt made remarks and introduced the recipients.  Students Erin Looney, Ben Crocker, and Miriam Cubstead read about the events that led to Norris and Swenson receiving the award.

Swenson and Norris speaking to studentsBoth men were humble and candid in their talk to the students, stressing you don’t have to win a medal to be a hero, “Courage doesn’t have to be in combat,” says Norris.  “Courage can be in your achievements in school, work, sports, decisions you make in everyday life…don’t think only of yourself, think of others around you, help them achieve.”

The Recipients said they were “just doing their job”, and their award represents what everyone can do, not just those in the military or those who happen to be recognized in the moment, “We get to fly around in helicopters and speak to you,” says Swenson.  “This award is for every service member I served with and who is still serving who all have the ability to achieve heroism, but war is messy and it doesn’t always work out that way.”

Norris and Swenson opened up the floor to questions from the students who covered a range of topics from coming home to the effect of video games.  One student asked if they thought there would ever be a day without the military.  Swenson thoughtfully answered and said that no soldier wants to fight, but they are there to defend their country, “We are an extension of policy when diplomatic talks fail, but I say it is always better to leave your sword in its sheath.”

Pictures by Carol Ouellette 

Exiting-Helicopter.JPG  Helicopter-landing.JPG  Norris-Swenson-helicopter.JPG  BHS-Marching-Band.JPG  Norris-Swenson-outside-BHS.JPG  Darias-and-Swenson.jpg  McDevitt-Norris-Phelan-Richards.JPG  Swenson-and-Norris-speaking-to-students.JPG