How a soldier-turned-educator connects his students to veterans

By Jeffrey Kanode, for RealWV

As he has done for years, teacher Scott Womack brought Monroe County veterans to James Monroe High School recently to have conversation with students. Womack himself is a decorated Army veteran with a storied career characterized by a breathtaking evolutionary arc—he spent time as a paratrooper, served as an Armor officer, and transitioned into service in civil affairs, defense intelligence, and defense attaché work. The soldier turned educator sees facilitating networking opportunities between students and adults in the community as profoundly important.

Colonel Scott Womack’s military career can only be described as diverse, with a depth of experience he has carried with him into the classroom as a teacher. Photo by Jeffrey Kanode.

“There are few, if any, opportunities for students to interact with veterans, or any adults, really. If students aren’t involved in community activities, like church, for instance, the only adults they interact with are teachers. Conversation builds understanding on both sides,” Womack said.

For an entire school day, Womack had tables set up around the school auditorium, with three or four veterans stationed at each table. Participants included Vietnam veterans, veterans who served in various places throughout the Cold War, veterans of the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and active duty armed service members. Students spent an entire class period at one table, and Womack instructed them to ask the veterans questions. If they couldn’t think of their own, Womack had handed out a list of suggested conversation starters.

Hank Fischer spoken openly and frankly about the wounds veterans carry home from war. Photo by Jeffrey Kanode.

A student asked Hank Fischer if he found any portion of his military service as boring. “It didn’t get boring where I was. I was in Vietnam. You didn’t know whether you would live or die,” he answered. Fischer went on to elaborate that even when soldiers in Vietnam slept, someone always had to stand watch. “That’s why Vietnam vets having trouble sleeping, even to this day,” Fischer reflected. “Over there, you didn’t sleep.”

Reading from Womack’s list, another student asked Fischer to describe one of the most “eye opening” experiences or events from his military service. Fischer recounted the harrowing story of drowning in a rice paddy. He characterized it as a near-death experience. “I saw myself floating in that water,” he said. “A friend helped saved me. He’s right over there.” Fischer pointed to Bill McCann, sitting at one of the other tables.

Bill McCann– Vietnam veteran Bill McCann recalled the darkness and the sounds of jungle nights in Vietnam.  McCann saved friend Hank Fischer’s life in Vietnam. Photo by Jeffrey Kanode.

When a student asked him to describe why he chose military service, Fischer smiled. “I was drafted. The government said ‘you’re going,’ so I went. Some guys moved to Canada and all that. I just went.”

Fischer also opened up to the students about the pervasiveness of Post Traumatic Stress among veterans. “You find yourself talking to a guy, and the next moment his head is gone. That’s war. You deal with it. You talk about it to deal with it. Otherwise, it’s suicide.”

Despite it all, Fischer concluded, “If I had to do it again, I’d do it again.”

Whitney Robinson, Steve Ellison, Bridget Larew and Dennis Taylor all manned a table together at the recent roundtable event at Jame Monroe High School. Photo by Jeffrey Kanode.

At the table he shared with Bill McCann and Jackie Kirby, Scott Womack fielded a question about the advent of his military service. “My family has an unbroken tradition since the American Revolution. My dad and his brothers were World War II guys. They didn’t talk about the war. It was all focus on ‘the service.’ I was eager. I was a want-to-be from the very beginning,” Womack stated.

“Well, I am the opposite of Colonel Womack. I was drafted, kicking and screaming,” Bill McCann said with a laugh. He recounted how his car nearly ran out of gas on the drive to the site of his military induction. “Most people who served in the infantry would do it again, even though it was grueling,” he added.

Dr. Jim Wright, Scott Ernst, and Todd W. Fairchild shared their stories and insights with James Monroe students. Photo by Jeffrey Kanode.

McCann shared other memories of his service in Vietnam. He described what nights were like in the jungle. “With moonlight, you see things move. But pitch-black nights were even worse. Not being able to see anything, you hear. You’re hearing sounds you had never heard before. You are in fear all the time.”

When a student asked the veterans to describe one of their most frightening experiences in the military, Womack recounted a mission while he was serving as a defense attaché in the African country of Chad. With so many American forces deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan during that period, he was the only American on site, charged with helping the Chadian military. In that position, Womack led an operation to track an Al Qaeda terrorist. He quickly taught the Chadian forces American ambush strategy, as opposed to making headlong charges into the enemy’s position, the tactic they were accustomed to employing. Womack admitted that mission was scary because he was the only American there, but the ambush proved successful. “It ended well,” he remembered.

 Isabel Adkins and Justin Dolan gained a deeper understanding of the dimensions of military service. “It’s not just about guns,” Adkins stated. Photo by Jeffrey Kanode.

At the conclusion of their class period with the veterans, students Justin Dolan and Isabel Adkins were eager to articulate their reflections on all that they had heard, on all that they had learned.

“I learned the military is a great experience, but I knew I would hear that going in,” Dolan began. “I learned more, though. I learned it can help you learn about yourself, and it can help you spiritually, too.”

Adkins also found that the morning spent talking and listening to the veterans broadened her horizons, too. “The military isn’t just about guns. There is so much more you can do. There’s a band. Like Sergeant Wiley (one of James Monroe’s JROTC teachers, and one of the participating veterans) you could serve and still stay home in West Virginia. It’s more than just fighting people,” she said.

“I love this event. It’s one of my favorite days every year,” Womack said after the day had concluded.

On a bright, brisk autumn day just a few days after Veteran’s Day, at James Monroe High School the veterans spoke. The students heard.

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