For the past five years, students at LaCrossroads High School have found new heroes.
They're not famous. They're not far away. And they're more likely to be named Edna or Richard than Britney or Shaquille.
The students from the alternative high school have interviewed 78 local veterans of foreign wars and videotaped their stories as part of the nationwide Veterans History Project.
Tuesday morning, U.S. Rep. Ron Kind, who authored the 2000 legislation that started the project, honored the program's local participants, young and old, at a ceremony at La Crosse American Legion Post 52.
"Thanks for getting involved," Kind told the group of about 50 people. "You're allowing students to connect with veterans, and you're making a great contribution to our nation's history."
Kind also awarded a Bronze Star and a World War II victory medal to Richard Allen, 82, an Onalaska resident and participant in the Veterans History Project. Allen served as a private in the U.S. Army in the Philippines.
He was honored for his "conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity" for leading guerrilla assaults in February 1945 that resulted in the deaths of at least 51 Japanese troops.
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Karen Schoenfeld, who directs the Veterans History Project at LaCrossroads High School, spoke of how stories from veterans such as Allen affected the students, many of whom were at risk of not graduating.
"They hear about violence from another perspective," Schoenfeld said. "It's not glamorous or glorified but necessary for the defense of our nation."
She said they also hear tearful stories from veterans about missing their mothers and losing friends in battle. "You give them real people, with real stories about what you went through when you were their age," she said.
Mike Booker, a student at LaCrossroads, spoke on behalf of the students. "It is obvious to us that telling your stories to strangers is not an easy thing to do," he said. "However, you are helping us learn a great deal more than any textbook or video could ever do."
Booker currently serves in the Army Reserves and gave his speech dressed in fatigues. He's the third graduate of LaCrossroads to enlist since the Veterans History Project began, Schoenfeld said.
"You've become the heroes that our kids don't otherwise have," she said to the veterans.
Dan Simmons can be reached at (608)791-8217 or email@example.com.