Thanks to a supportive community, the Winter Springs High School JROTC traveled to Hawaii to help commemorate our nation’s most infamous day.
It is “a date which will live in infamy,” but for some high-school students, December 7, 1941 may just be a date to memorize for history class.
That will never be the case for a group of Winter Springs High School JROTC cadets who recently marched in a memorial parade at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, marking the 77th anniversary of Japan’s history-altering attack on the United States.
A tremendous outpouring of support from the Winter Springs community, especially its Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) chapter and sister VFW posts, allowed the 28 cadets and their six chaperones to make the expensive trip to Honolulu.
They traveled to a site of living history. At Pearl Harbor, a memorial built above the sunken USS Arizona honors the crew of 1,117 sailors and Marines killed in the attack that led the United States into World War II. The men are forever entombed below while drops of decades-old oil, nicknamed black tears, still emerge occasionally from the doomed battleship.
In all, 2,403 people were killed at Pearl Harbor.
“Walking in the parade, it was emotional,” says Gabriella Lopez, a 17-year-old junior in the JROTC program. “I was crying.”
The experience equally affected Gabriella’s mom, Jennifer Ayala, who traveled with the cadets and was, along with parent Nicki Juhl, one of the principal fundraisers for the event.
“It really had an impact to see it in person,” Jennifer says. “You realize that almost 1,200 soldiers are under a body of water.”
Jennifer and Gabriella joined other cadets and their families in an intense fundraising effort that lasted some nine months.
“We hit business after business,” Jennifer says.
Gabriella joined the JROTC program in her sophomore year and admits that things didn’t click immediately.
“I wasn’t that involved in the program,” she says. “I didn’t know anyone.”
All of that changed with the Hawaii fundraiser. Gabriella began bonding with the other cadets. And, of course, the actual trip to Hawaii only intensified those bonds.
The bond among military veterans showed its strength during the fundraiser, too, with the Winter Springs VFW post stepping up to make the cadets’ trip a reality.
“We wanted these kids to understand the history of Pearl Harbor,” says Adam Zavardino, senior vice commander with the VFW post. “We wanted them to understand the sacrifices made by The Greatest Generation.”
For reasons unknown, the local VFW post and the WSHS JROTC program didn’t have much of a relationship, but that all changed, thanks to the Hawaii fundraiser.
“We now have one of the strongest relationships around,” says Adam.
When the company that helps arrange commemorative military events like the Pearl Harbor parade originally approached Winter Springs High School, the plan was for cadets to take part in a D-Day anniversary in Normandy, France.
But it quickly became clear that trip would be prohibitively expensive, says JROTC instructor Sergeant Major Frederick Ramie, who joined senior instructor Colonel Joseph Pavone on the trip to Hawaii.
For Frederick, the change of venue was a fortuitous one – he is a native of Honolulu and still has family in the state.
While Hawaii exists as a paradise in the minds of many, Frederick never really thought about it as a kid.
“The beaches, the weather – we were just used to it,” he says.
Similarly, the enormity of the Pearl Harbor attack did not weigh on Frederick while he was growing up. It was only after he joined the military that the significance of it all kicked in, he says.
After taking part in the December 7 parade and laying a wreath on an anchor from the Arizona, the WSHS students got to relax a little and enjoy a grand meal on the beach. They also tried their hands at surfing and paddle-boarding, and they sampled native food provided by Frederick’s family.
Frederick says he was blown away by the support from the VFW and the rest of the Winter Springs community.
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“They really stepped up to help our kids experience the trip of a lifetime,” he says.