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Andrew Demko's students worked on pilot program last school year

by: COURTESY BILL PETROS, VIETNAM VETERANS MEMORIAL FUND - From left, state Rep. Brad Witt, Rainier Junior/Senior High School teacher Andrew Demko, Rainier sophomore David Placido and U.S. Rep. Suzanne Bonamici attend a reception at the Library of Congress to kick off the Hometown Heroes Service Learning Project. Demko and his students, including Placido, participated in a Hometown Heroes pilot program last school year, gathering stories of people from Columbia County who served in the Vietnam War. They were honored Wednesday, June 25, for their work, which Demko and Placido said they plan to continue over the summer and next school year.A teacher and student from Rainier Junior/Senior High School were among a select group of honorees at the launch of a veterans-oriented service learning curriculum in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday, June 25.

Social studies teacher Andrew Demko and sophomore David Placido represented Rainier, one of just six schools around the country recognized at the Library of Congress reception for piloting the Hometown Heroes Service Learning Project. The voluntary educational curriculum is a program of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, a national nonprofit organization that works to promote awareness of American service personnel in the Vietnam War.

“It was a great experience to present the project that we were working on here in Columbia County,” Demko said Monday, June 30.

During the past school year, Demko and his students worked to gather artifacts, photographs and stories from Columbia County residents who served in Vietnam. Their work is ongoing.

“We’re by no means done,” Demko said. “We’re still researching and want to collect stories.”

The Rainier delegation — which included Placido’s father, who commands a United States Coast Guard vessel — brought a copy of the notebook in which Demko and his class have compiled local veterans’ stories.

David Placido gave a presentation on the school’s pilot project. He said Monday he “felt very honored” to be part of the event.

Demko and the Placidos were also joined at the reception by a pair of high-profile supporters of the service learning project: U.S. Rep. Suzanne Bonamici, who represents Columbia County in Congress, and state Rep. Brad Witt, who represents the county in the Oregon House of Representatives.

“The circumstances were such that I was able to be there when that award was given out,” Witt said. “To think that one of my constituents from the rather small town of Rainier was able to capture a national award and be one of five young people to do so was just an outstanding opportunity.”

Witt said he “regularly” attends Rainier History Club events.

“I’m a history fan myself, and a very big supporter of Mr. Demko,” said Witt, calling Demko an “extra-special teacher.”

Demko and the Placidos also met with Bonamici, Sen. Jeff Merkley and members of Sen. Ron Wyden’s staff, according to Demko. They also visited the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on the National Mall, a granite wall on which the names of the American war dead and missing from the Vietnam conflict are inscribed.

One of the names on the wall is that of Sgt. Dennis Edge, a Rainier man who died in 1968 while fighting in Vietnam.

“That was very interesting, to see his name up there,” said Demko, adding, “He has his name down at the wall in the high school cafeteria.”

Witt said he appreciates the Hometown Heroes project because of the way it collects the personal accounts of veterans who survived the war and remembrances of those who were lost, as well as how it recognizes local men and women who served in the war.

“It is so important for our students to understand the Vietnam War. It was a very difficult time in our country’s history, and whether you were for or against or neutral on that war, it is extremely important that we remember all of the men and women who served in that war,” Witt said. “And this was an instance where the students all had an opportunity to particularly memorialize those servicepeople who had lost their lives.”

Placido said learning about the Vietnam veterans has been “really interesting.”

“One of the most surprising things that I’ve learned with Hometown Heroes is how horribly the veterans were treated when they first came home,” said Placido. He said he is glad to be working on a project to give the veterans “the respect that they deserve.”

Demko and his class will continue working on the project, the teacher said. A ceremony last month at the school to honor local veterans was enough of a success that Demko said he hopes to hold another one next year. He also said he and students hope to gather more stories from Columbia County residents, as well as residents of the Longview-Kelso metropolitan area in Washington.

“Since we’ve been back, we already have a couple more leads that we’re going to follow up on,” Demko said.

The June 25 reception marked the official launch of the Hometown Heroes project across the country. Bonamici was one of several members of Congress to attend.

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