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Learning History from Those Who Made It

Teacher’s Interview Project Earns Blue Angels Flight

Each spring, sophomores in Joel Diekevers’ class interview veterans, documenting their stories and learning their history. Students personally invite veterans to participate and connect with those who served, sometimes closing the gap between generations and building mutual respect.

Over the past 10 years, Diekevers, who teaches American history at Caledonia High School, has compiled more than 600 recorded veterans’ interviews along with fellow history teacher Heather Tornes. The interviews become part of the Grand Valley State University Veterans History Project and, from there, some are chosen for the Library of Congress.

Teacher Joel Diekevers has his students remember this quote, from a local veteran, every year
Class Speaker Awarded Highest Honor

Caledonia High School history teacher Heather Tornes has heard veteran Jim McCloughan’s story many times. This year she watched his legacy continue to unfold when he was awarded a Medal of Honor in a ceremony at the White House.

After nearly 50 years, McCloughan, who saved the lives of other soldiers during combat received the highest military award, the Medal of Honor, and Tornes attended the ceremony.

She’s bringing the experience – and McCloughan himself – back to her classroom. Tornes teaches a course called America at War, which focuses on U.S. conflicts and military history. She invites veterans to talk about their experience. McCloughan, from South Haven, has visited for the past eight years to talk about his time as a combat medic in the Vietnam War.

“I have heard Jim’s story many times and have heard him address my students no less than 15 times over the years, and I learn something new every time he shares his story or information about his military experience,” Tornes said. “He makes an impact on my students every time he comes, and students ask me about him all the time.”

Tornes is now excited to introduce her students to a Medal of Honor recipient in coming trimesters, a chance that very few people get, she said.

McCloughan received a Bronze Award, the third-highest award for gallantry in combat. But his platoon leader never gave up petitioning the Army for him to receive a higher award, the Distinguished Service Cross, Tornes said. Finally, Sen. Debbie Stabenow became his advocate and shared information with former Secretary of Defense Ash Carter, who determined McCloughan deserved the highest award, the Medal of Honor.

Special legislation allowed McCloughan to receive the award, which is usually awarded within five years of the action. President Obama signed approval in December of 2016 and President Trump awarded the medal.

History teacher Heather Tornes and her family at a Medal of Honor ceremony at the White House this summer: from left, daughters Maddie and Emma, Medal of Honor recipient Jim McCloughan, Heather Tornes and her husband, Pete

Because of his work, Diekevers was selected for a one-of-a-kind experience, flying high (and low and in circles, too) with the U.S. Navy Blue Angels. The flight exhibition team, formed in 1946, was started to raise the public’s interest in naval aviation and boost Navy morale.

Kevin Walsh, executive director of Yankee Air Museum, where Diekevers takes his students each year for a field trip, nominated Diekevers for the ride. The Blue Angels select Key Influencers, like Diekevers, who impact young people by shaping attitudes and opinions of youth in their communities.

‘Pulling Seven G’s’

In a sky of blue with a few billowy clouds in late August, Diekevers cruised in the back seat of a F/A18-Hornet, flown by pilot Lt. Brandon Hempler, during practice for shows at Thunder Over Michigan Airshow at Willow Run Airport, in Belleville.

‘The veterans are so impressed with our students and the fact that they still care about what they did.’ — Teacher Joel Diekevers

The 45-minute ride wasn’t tame by any civilian standards, Diekevers explained. He fainted for a few seconds and experienced dry heaves and cold sweats when “pulling seven G’s” — which means being pulled at seven times one’s body weight — during one air stunt. Mostly, however, it was an adrenaline rush he will never forget.

“It was just like the best roller coaster you are going to ever ride on steroids. It was such an honor to be picked,” he said.

But the experience was about something more important than a ride, he said. It was another chance to bring attention to veterans whose stories his students have the privilege of sharing.

“The reason this is cool is because it brings attention to connecting kids with veterans. If it brings attention to that it’s a win-win.”

Caledonia students, who find their own veterans to interview including family members, have recorded stories of vets that have served in wars spanning World War II to current conflicts.

“My kids get to talk to people who actually lived through the history they are learning about,” Diekevers said. “The veterans are so impressed with our students and the fact that they still care about what they did. It renews the faith of our veterans in the future of where this country is going.”

As a teacher, Diekevers loves to see real-world learning. “It’s fun for me to see the kids really connect and be able to see this is not just pages to read in a book. These people actually did this.”

Respecting Our Veterans
Sam Boyce, now a senior, interviewed her brother, Alex Boyce, who served in the Air Force two years ago, and learned details she never knew about his time overseas.

“That project was very cool,” Sam said. “It doesn’t surprise me at all that Mr. Diekevers was chosen to fly with the Blue Angels. He’s always really driven into us the value of respect for our veterans.

“It really gave a lot of perspective into how much these people have gone through, and how important it is to recognize the vets and what they have done for the country.”

For Jonelle Shannon, a junior, interviewing a veteran and listening to others’ stories “opened my eyes to see how much people work for our nation.”

Diekevers isn’t the first to take a cool airplane ride. Each year an anonymous philanthropist donates $6,000 for 24 students to fly in the Yankee Air Museum’s B-17.

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Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese is managing editor and reporter, covering Kentwood, Lowell and Wyoming. She was one of the original SNN staff writers, helping launch the site in 2013, and enjoys fulfilling the mission of sharing the stories of public education. She has worked as a journalist in the Grand Rapids area since 2000. A graduate of Central Michigan University, she has written for The Grand Rapids Press, Advance Newspapers, On-the-Town Magazine and Group Tour Media. Read Erin's full bio


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