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The Lifeline

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The Journey of a Lifetime

Featured Photo from The Journey of a Lifetime

On the 75th anniversary of D-Day, the Seminole High School Band traveled to Normandy to remember and celebrate those who risked everything to save the world Jake Burkhart’s great-grandfather was among the thousands of valiant American soldiers who stormed Omaha Beach in Normandy, France, on D-Day. The young Army soldier, Daniel Wojciek, earned a Purple Heart for leg and back injuries he sustained in the battles that followed, but he survived the carnage of World War II and made it back home.

On the 75th anniversary of D-Day, the Seminole High School Band traveled to Normandy to remember and celebrate those who risked everything to save the world


Jake Burkhart’s great-grandfather was among the thousands of valiant American soldiers who stormed Omaha Beach in Normandy, France, on D-Day. The young Army soldier, Daniel Wojciek, earned a Purple Heart for leg and back injuries he sustained in the battles that followed, but he survived the carnage of World War II and made it back home.


This summer – to mark the 75th anniversary of the Normandy landings of June 6, 1944 – Jake had the humbling opportunity to walk on the same ground where his great-grandfather so bravely fought. He was one of nearly 100 Seminole High School marching band students who traveled to France in June to perform at the 75th anniversary commemoration of the              D-Day invasion.


“It was pretty emotional really, seeing how big the beach is and just trying to imagine the experiences that everyone had there,” says Jake, a junior and a trombone player.


Seminole High’s band, The Pride of the Tribe, was invited to perform in France by Historic Programs, a nonprofit organization that produces events to commemorate historically significant moments around the world. Cheyne LaBonte and P.L. Malcolm, the school’s associate band directors, couldn’t turn down an invitation to play at an event of this magnitude.


“D-Day was such a big, historic event, a turning point of the 20th century,” says Cheyne, a Seminole High graduate and Pride of the Tribe alumnus. “A different outcome could have meant very different lives for everybody.”


Planning for the band’s week-long excursion to France began in the fall of 2017. The trip was open to any Seminole High student who was a band member during the 2018-19 school year. Of the band’s 225 instrumentalists, Cheyne says, 97 kids opted to go.


Logistically, planning an overseas trip for that many students was a huge undertaking. Fortunately, Seminole High’s Band Parent Association pitched in, helping out as organizers at home and chaperones abroad.


“We had superstar parents who pulled us through the mud on this thing and kept up with all the deadlines,” Cheyne says. “They were boots on the ground.”


The students’ time in France was filled with concert performances, a parade, and plenty of sightseeing in Paris. The Pride of the Tribe, along with several other musical groups, performed at American military cemeteries in Normandy and Brittany. The reverent tributes included speeches by United States veterans who gave moving firsthand accounts of their World War II experiences.


The ceremony’s musical highlight was the beautiful “Hymn to the Fallen,” composed by John Williams for the award-winning movie, Saving Private Ryan.


Students also visited Omaha Beach, D-Day’s bloodiest battleground, which the Normandy American Cemetery overlooks. Listening to the soldiers’ remarks and walking along the beach made a strong impression on Sebastian Clark, a sophomore and a trumpet player.


“Seeing movies like Saving Private Ryan, and then hearing veterans describe things exactly like that, and seeing the location where it happened was crazy,” he says.


At Omaha Beach, Sebastian collected a small vial of sand as a souvenir for someone special – his great-grandfather, Albert Clark. Now in his 90s, Albert desperately wanted to serve his country during World War II, but a medical condition prevented him from doing so.


To add another layer to the epic trip, P.L. and Cheyne gave each band student the name of a Florida soldier who was killed in action on D-Day or in the battles immediately after. The kids also received directions to their soldier’s burial plot at the Normandy cemetery so they could find the grave marker. Row after seemingly endless row of white headstones dotted the landscape. Some of the students were quiet and contemplative; others were moved to tears.


“Seeing emotional students walking out of those cemeteries made me emotional,” Cheyne says. “I think the kids came back from this trip different than when they left.”


Later in the journey, the mood lightened considerably when the students participated in a D-Day memorial parade in Sainte-Mere-Eglise, France, the first village in Normandy to be liberated by American paratroopers. The Pride of the Tribe also played a solo concert in the town, entertaining the audience with music they perform at home, including the school alma mater and fight songs.


“The first couple of days at the cemeteries were very solemn,” says P.L., a history buff who strongly believes in the importance of learning from the past. “But the parade was a celebration – a D-Day festival. It was just so exciting and fun.”


French locals turned out in droves to cheer on the Seminole High students and other parade participants. The band’s rendition of “The Colonel Bogey March,” with its infectious whistling segments, was a big hit with the crowd.


“The streets in that town were just packed,” Cheyne says. “The people were hanging out the windows, blowing kisses to our kids, waving, and clapping along to our music. They were totally into it.”


Toward the end of their trip, the students toured major landmarks in Paris including the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre Museum. They also cruised along the picturesque Seine River on their final night in France.


Brianna Tremblay, a junior who plays the clarinet, had never traveled outside the United States before and enjoyed immersing herself in another country’s culture. Her mother, Suzanne, came along as a parent chaperone.


“I really liked the environment – It was a nice experience,” Brianna says. “It was so cool to be able to see sculptures and paintings like the Venus de Milo and the Mona Lisa at the Louvre. And at the Eiffel Tower, you could see the entire city of Paris from the second floor.”


For Jake, the best part of the journey was establishing a stronger personal connection to the past and to his family’s history. Jake’s great-grandfather lived a long life, well into his 80s, and was buried with full military honors including a 21-gun salute.


When Jake packed his bags for France, he brought along a sentimental treasure – the American flag that his family received at Daniel’s funeral. At Omaha Beach, Jake took a moment to pose for a special photo, holding his great-grandfather’s folded flag in his arms.


“It was really a once-in-a-lifetime experience to go there and think about the past events that happened,” Jake says.


The trip to France wasn’t the band’s first major excursion outside the continental United States. Over the past decade, SHS band students have performed in London, Japan, and Hawaii – the latter to commemorate the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor.


“Travel is very important, just to broaden the students’ perspectives,” Cheyne says. “Too often, we can get complacent with our lives here and not think outside our bubble.”


And, P.L. adds, personal experiences – such as hearing humble veterans talk about World War II and the ones who didn’t make it home – are so much more meaningful than watching a movie or reading a book about the subject.


“That’s something these kids will never forget,” P.L. says.


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