There wasn't a moment Thursday when New Cassel Retirement Center resident Joe Nigro, 87, wasn't grinning as he told stories of his service in the Korean War. In 1953, Nigro was a member of the Army Ordnance that supplied ammunition and maintenance operations to troops in Korea.
Anna Nigro, a junior at Omaha Skutt Catholic High School, sat next to Joe when she saw his familiar last name. The two had never met, and they discovered that they are descendants of the same Italian-American family. For each question Anna asked about his service, Joe had a dozen stories and a handful of photos to illustrate them.
"I enjoy talking about it all," Joe said. "Not too many people ask."
The two were part of an event that paired 29 Skutt students with 20 veterans who had war stories to tell.
At New Cassel, 900 N. 90th St., it was a much-anticipated day.
At 8:30 a.m., residents were carefully placing framed photos — younger versions of themselves, in uniform — in the pouches of their walkers. Some carried file folders of documents, kept for years and filled with faded military identification cards and letters from home they received while serving abroad.
They journeyed from their rooms to the center's auditorium and spread their keepsakes out on red, white and blue tablecloths. Several residents wore shirts printed with American flags, and one woman had painted her fingernails blue.
For an hour they excitedly awaited the students' arrival.
The Skutt group included 10 seniors taking AP U.S. history, three seniors who are potential military academy nominees and 16 juniors from the honors American studies class.
The idea for the event began when New Cassel Foundation President Cindy Petrich spoke with John McMahon, the president of Skutt, about the 50 veterans who live at New Cassel. McMahon wanted to have students engage in conversations with these veterans about their experiences and worked with Petrich to plan a day when a group of students could visit New Cassel.
"Being able to get those stories out before they're lost forever is very cool," Petrich said. "They barely talk about it and they never brag about it, so it's only in a setting like this that they would actually speak.
"They're sharing their stories — the sacrifices that they made and what they went through so that we could have the freedoms that we have."
At one table, Skutt seniors Katherine Lanzante and Jarrett Damewood leaned in close to resident Gordon Brooks as he spoke about his service in the Air Force during World War II. Damewood asked Brooks what his parents thought of him joining the Air Force. They were nervous but proud, Brooks said.
Damewood hopes to attend the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, and Lanzante has her sights set on the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland.
"It makes it real," Lanzante said about hearing the veterans' stories. "People are forgetting about these wars, and here are these people telling us that they were there."
Lanzante said she spoke to a female resident who served as a nurse in the Navy. The woman said she wished she could have been on a Navy destroyer like the men were at the time. Lanzante got to tell the veteran that her dream was to do just that.
"She was shocked but proud," Lanzante said. "I value what these veterans have done for us and I want to reverse that and give back to the community."
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