For more than 60 years,
a publication centered on life in Mississippi.
Today is October 4, 2022

Honoring Our Armed Forces

Picayune students are learning U.S. history from the very citizens who helped shape it through their military service

By Debbie Stringer

Honoring Our Armed Forces

Allison Wheat

    When Picayune resident A.P. Guizerix heard that local high school students were inviting veterans to the school to talk about their military experiences, he knew he had to participate.
    “I was active in the military during the sixties,” said the retired Navy captain and former naval reservist. “Everybody who wore a uniform in the sixties suffered some kind of degrading complaints. So when I heard about this, I said, you know, if somebody at the school is going to take the trouble to try to give a better impression of the military to our youth, then I gotta do it.”
    Each year Picayune Memorial High School invites veterans and members of the armed forces to spend a day sharing their military experiences with students. Since 2007, the annual Jerry “Chip” Burge Jr. Memorial Armed Forces Reception has attracted hundreds of veterans and military men and women from eight states. This year’s event will be held May 17, coinciding with National Military Appreciation Month.
    Seated at tables with the students in the school’s gym, participants share their personal experiences, memories and memorabilia from conflicts ranging from World War II through the war in Afghanistan.
    Students learn U.S. history from those who helped shape it, plus—and this is important to them—they get to thank the participants for their military service.
   “I didn’t know what to expect at first but I’ve got to say that the students were amazingly respectful and very interested,” Guizerix said.
    Participants’ stories of wartime duty and valor captivate the students, who pepper them with questions.
    “I spent six hours talking with a guy from Wiggins about Iwo Jima,” said senior student Gage Butler. His father, a Marine, has served for 21 years.
    “I wanted to hear more of what they had been through and I didn’t want to leave,” said senior student Katie Cooper, whose uncle is serving in Afghanistan.
    Cooper’s late grandfather served in the Korean War but did not like to talk about his war experiences. “He lost his friend [in the war] and it was just too emotional for him,” she said.
    The reception was named in 2009 after Army Staff Sgt. Chip Burge, of Carriere, who was killed April 4, 2007, while assigned to the First Calvary Division in Taji, Iraq.
    “These men are dying but children are not aware of it. They need to know the sacrifices being made for this country,” said Bobbie Kennedy, Burge’s aunt. She and her husband, Glen, display their fallen soldier’s military memorabilia at the reception each year.
    Burge, the father of two children, served more than eight of his 11 years of active duty overseas. His dozens of medals include three Purple Hearts. Kennedy said he was a “real hero” who believed his assignment to train new troops arriving in Iraq would help keep them alive.
   “He loved what he did, and he loved the reason he was doing it,” she said.
    When Burge’s funeral procession rolled past Picayune Memorial High School on April 13, 2007, the entire student body lined the street to watch.
    “As the hearse came by, one could literally hear a pin drop, which was remarkable for over 1,500 teenagers,” said Allison Wheat, a U.S. history teacher at the school.
    “Just to see the school turn out as we passed by [in the procession] and the children waving as he was passing—that just did so much to us,” Kennedy said. “It made us certainly feel that at least his death wasn’t in vain.”
    As it happened, Wheat and co-teacher Glen Mitchell stood with their students near members of the local VFW. After the procession, Wheat began explaining to her students who the veterans were and what their pins and patches signified. Suddenly, a female student walked up to one of the veterans, shook his hand and thanked him for his military service.
    Without prompting, the rest of the history students lined up to thank the veterans.
    “It was unbelievable,” Wheat said. “And when everything was over, I heard that gentleman’s wife ask him, ‘Are you OK?’ And he said, ‘I’m better than I’ve been in a long time.’”
    As the history students walked back to class, some of them in tears, they vowed to do something to show their appreciation for the veterans’ military service. At the time, many of them had relatives serving in Iraq with the local National Guard unit.
    “I think they just wanted to show an appreciation for what the members of the armed forces do for our country,” said Wheat, a member of Coast Electric Power Association.
    Within two weeks, the students had planned a reception to which they would invite local veterans to share stories of their service. Thirteen veterans attended.
   By 2011 the reception had grown to some 130 veterans and armed forces members from several states, plus Civil War reenactors who showed the students what it was like to fire guns and cannon. (The community was forewarned of the loud cannon blasts to come.)
    Guizerix and many of the other participants come back year after year to talk with the students.
    A member of Coast Electric, Guizerix served in the Navy from 1957 until 1960 and in the Navy Reserves until 1982. He told students about serving aboard ships crashing through 30-foot waves in the North Sea. He explained why his naval officer’s sword is sharp only at the tip (it’s for poking, not slicing), and he taught a lesson in military time using a 24-hour clock from a World War II-era ship.
    Another navy veteran, who was aboard the USS Missouri at the time of the signing of the Japanese surrender on that ship in 1945, brought one of the original copies of the surrender agreement to show the students.
   Twenty-two World War II veterans were among those who attended last year’s reception. An African-American veteran talked about racial discrimination on the base where he served as a cook during the war. Other veterans explained their role in the first wave of the D-Day invasion, and one recounted his experience as a German POW. A woman who was a member of the Navy’s WAVES, or Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service, spoke of her wartime travels overseas.
    The veterans appear to enjoy opening up to their young, receptive listeners, Wheat said. One man said his father, a World War II veteran, told the students three wartime stories he had never heard before.
    Butler said he is fascinated by tales of patriotism and the “rallying of the spirit” that Americans demonstrated after the attack on Pearl Harbor.
    “In this school, after Pearl Harbor, all but three senior males enlisted in active duty service,” he said.
    “What’s most interesting to me are the struggles—especially with the World War II veterans and Vietnam veterans—they faced when they came home, and the psychological issues that they still tend to face today,” Butler said.
   He stays in contact with some of the veterans he met at last year’s reception. He sent photos of modern-day Hiroshima, taken by his father, to one veteran who fought in the Pacific in World War II.
    “I just want them to know that there are kids nowadays that really do respect them for what they did, and they value the sacrifices they made,” Butler said.
    “This is one of the most remarkable experiences that I have ever had as a teacher,” Wheat said.
    “A lot of kids who I never, ever thought would care actually come out with a whole new perspective towards veterans and what men and women give up to serve our country. They get an understanding about that sacrifice.”
    Wheat wants the veterans and armed forces members to leave the reception knowing “that these kids care. That their stories won’t die with them and that these kids will remember them for a long, long, long time.”
    “All the high schools in Mississippi should take notice of this program,” Guizerix said. “The program is excellent and it bridges the gap between this younger generation and two [previous] generations. It gives the kids some kind of an idea of what the previous generations had to go through for them to be where they are.
    “I’m proud to be a part of it,” he said.

    The Jerry “Chip” Burge Jr. Memorial Armed Forces Reception will be held May 17 from 8:30 a.m. until 2:30 p.m. at Picayune Memorial High School, in Picayune. Veterans and current members of the armed forces are invited to attend and bring memorabilia, family and friends. The event is open to the public. For more information, call Allison Wheat at 601-590-1068.

Site designed by Marketing Alliance, Inc.