The auxiliary gym at Century High School was transformed into a living history museum Thursday, and the school celebrated veterans and military service.
Veterans from a variety of eras dressed in uniform, answered questions from students, and explained displays of soldiers' gear, medals and documents in an annual presentation of the school's Junior ROTC.
"The Veterans Day assembly is a way for us to honor our veterans," said JROTC Cadet Staff Sgt. Brendon Shaver, a Century junior. "It's our way of honoring their service, saying thank you, showing that we actually do care, the youth still cares about them."
One of those veterans is Donald Sipes, a retired U.S. Army sergeant who trained to operate Sherman tanks at the end of World War II before being transferred to the signal corps and processing dispatches from the United States in Frankfurt, Germany.
"In 1945, it would have been my senior year in school, but I got drafted," Sipes said.
Sipes loves to share his stories from the WWII era with young people.
"If somebody doesn't do it, it's going to be lost history," he said. "The WWII veterans are leaving us fast."
He shared stories about soldiers coming home by ship and seeing the Statue of Liberty, and stories about the absurdities of the post-war barter economy in Germany and the incredible value of U.S. goods.
"One evening a German approached me and he had a watch, he wanted cigarettes," Sipes said. "I gave him three cigarettes and a bar of soap; he gave me the watch."
That was a fairly common type of exchange at the time, Sipes said, and not knowing brass from copper, he remained ignorant of the lopsided nature of that trade until two years later, when the watch crystal broke, and he took it to a jeweler in Hanover, Pennsylvania., for repairs.
"I asked him, what is that watch?" Sipes said. "Well son, it's solid gold. It's called Jaeger-LeCoultre, and it has the best Swiss movement made in it." Sipes had traded three cigarettes and a bar of soap to get what was, in 1948, a $1,000 gold watch.
Madelyn Riccardi, a Century sophomore, loved hearing the stories of veterans like Sipes.
"I like learning about what people did for this country, what they had to go through and things like that," she said.
Would Riccardi consider serving herself?
"I've thought about it, but I don't think I would," she said.
For Erin Helmick, however, it's a different story. A sophomore like Riccardi, Helmick is a cadet private in JROTC whose brother serves in the U.S. Army. She plans to follow in his footsteps.
"I plan on going in for nursing and then I plan after that to become maybe a neonatal nurse," she said.
At the Veterans Day living museum, Helmick was counting push-ups for students and JROTC members trying their upper-body strength in a weighted push-up contest while wearing a ballistic vest, a type of body armor weighing 32 pounds.
"This just the vest — usually you would have guns and everything else with it," Helmick said. "Right now our high score is 47 [push-ups]. If you win you get a vet challenge pin."
JROTC Cadet Staff Sgt. Bradley Combs strapped on the ballistic vest and managed to pump out 10 strong push-ups while Helmick counted.
"This program has affected me a lot. Not just physically," Combs said. "I do want to join the military. People are like, 'Oh, if you join [JROTC] then you have to join the military.' That's not true. The mission of JROTC is to motivate young people to be better citizens."
Talking earnestly to students considering military service was a high point of the veterans event at Century for Michael Cortes, a retired Command Sgt. Maj. in the U.S. Army. He's the one who brought the ballistic vest for the push-up contest.
"I really appreciate Century High School allowing vets to come in here and create the opportunity for us to be able to speak to the kids about what it is we've seen and what is we've done so that they have a better grasp of what it means to serve their country," he said. "I find the kids really do get a lot out of it; they learn about different aspects of world history that we've all seen, as well as participated in."
A special operator who spent portions of his 23 years of service in the Army Ranger Regiment, Army Special Operations Command and Asymmetric Warfare Group from Fort Meade, Md. — and saw deployments to Iraq, Afghanistan and Bosnia — Cortes has no illusions about the sometimes dangerous nature of military service. While celebrating those who served, he likes to make sure students understand all that service entails.
"I have a flier from the funerals of all my mates that have been killed. I always make sure they see that because that is the reality of what it is that we face," Cortes said. "Especially for kids that are thinking about military service; I encourage it, I think it's a good thing, but you have to go in understanding what it is you are going to go do and realize your job is to fight and kill."
A previous version of this story incorrectly identified a portion of the service record of retired Command Sgt. Maj. Michael Cortes. Cortes served in the Asymmetric Warfare Group from Fort Meade, Md.