Partners for Peace is the Niebuhr Center’s hands-on social justice initiative that educates Elmhurst students by deploying them to serve the College’s neighbors in need. Each September for the past five years, Partners for Peace crews have been making the brief bus ride to the impoverished neighborhoods of Chicago’s West side to work on projects related to gun violence, hunger, health care and other social issues. This year, the Niebuhr Center kicked off the Partners for Peace event with a panel discussion featuring six local veterans of World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War and the war in Afghanistan.
The veterans’ experiences spanned six decades of duty. But they all shared a sense of pride in having served their country.
“I joined out of patriotism,” said Cameron Kasmar, a Barrington native who served in the Marines in Afghanistan, of his decision to enlist. “We were at war, and we were needed overseas. It was very clear to me.”
His account was echoed by Fae Gedz, an Elmhurst resident who joined the Women’s Army Corps in 1943 and served as a sergeant in North Africa and Italy. She recalled enlisting as soon as she learned that she could serve.
“This was something that had to be done,” she said. “I was personally going to take care of Hitler.”
The Rev. Dr. Ronald K. Beauchamp, director of the Niebuhr Center for Faith and Action, thanked the veterans for sharing their stories. “So many people have an interest in these stories, but they don’t know how to ask about them,” he said. “We thought it was important for these veterans to be able to share. But the question of the day is, how important is it for us to listen?”
For some students in the audience, the veterans’ stories offered a lesson in the importance of sacrifice and service.
“I think a lot of people in our generation don’t know a lot about what veterans have done,” said Amanda Anthony, a senior French major from St. Charles.
Another student in the audience was able to share his own experiences of service. James O’Reilly, a first-year kinesiology major from South Elgin who served in Afghanistan from 2008 to 2013, said the panel helped raise awareness of veterans’ issues, including the challenges of returning to civilian life.
“There are vets out there, whether we know it or not, adjusting to being back home,” he said.
The panel presentation was a prelude to the Partners for Peace activity in honor of veterans. On November 1, Elmhurst students provided food and clothing to homeless veterans through the VietNow program.
Niebuhr Center Assistant Director Mark Draper said serving veterans gives students a personal understanding of the sacrifices veterans have made. That, he said, can be a deeper education than any they receive in a classroom. “Veterans may seem like something you just read about in a book, but then you meet this person and it changes,” he said.
Beauchamp said he hoped that the events would lead students to ask themselves how they can best honor the service of veterans. Gedz offered some simple advice to the audience in the Frick Center: “If some friend of yours comes home from the service, just welcome them,” she said. “Welcome them and thank them for what they did.”