A Patriotic Pilgrimage
August 25th, 2017 by Pam Blair

Top, the Oregon delegation meets with U.S. Rep. Greg Walden during a visit to the United States Capitol. Photo by Jonathan Farmer

The nation’s history comes alive for high school students on Youth Tour

Marines in dress blue uniforms mingle effortlessly with awestruck teenagers in the sweltering heat of Washington, D.C., on a Tuesday evening in June.

It is a precursor to a patriotic display by the United States Marine Drum and Bugle Corps and Marine Corps Silent Drill Platoon—young men and women not much older than the teens.

As the setting sun casts an orange glow on the Washington Monument, the musicians march in to the cadence tapped out by snare drums, with the 32-foot-high figures at the U.S. Marine Corps War Memorial providing a picturesque backdrop.

Soaking up the tribute to those whose “uncommon valor was a common virtue” are some of the record-setting 1,800 students from around the country visiting the nation’s capital as part of the weeklong Rural Electric Youth Tour.

“During the military parade, I felt a great sense of pride for my country,” says Jordan Johnson of Arizona’s Duncan Valley Electric Cooperative. “Watching our graceful flag fly high in the sky and hearing our national anthem played by the very same men and women who protect our nation made me extremely grateful and humbled to live in the greatest country in the world.”

A Week of Sightseeing
Started 53 years ago, the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association’s Youth Tour program exposes teenagers from rural areas to a world they often have only read about in textbooks, and challenges them to stretch outside their comfort zones.

Participating electric cooperatives select students who, typically, have just completed their junior year of high school for the all-expense-paid, awe-inspiring, life-changing trip of a lifetime.

Each state develops its own itinerary, but students come together for Youth Day and a Potomac River cruise, exchanging state pins and keepsakes with fellow delegates and making lifelong friends with people who were strangers the day before.

Students see the roots of American history in visits to Arlington National Cemetery, Fort McHenry, the U.S. Marine Corps Iwo Jima War Memorial, the World War II Memorial, the Korean War Veterans Memorial, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the Lincoln Memorial, the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial, the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial and the Jefferson Memorial.

They visit the National Archives, Mount Vernon, the Holocaust Memorial Museum, the Washington National Cathedral, the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian museums.

They tour the U.S. Capitol and meet with representatives and senators, witness the Sunset Parade, and learn about electric cooperatives and grassroots advocacy.

“You cannot truly appreciate American history without seeing it first hand,” says Hayley Thrapp of California’s Anza Electric Cooperative.

While students cover a lot of ground, the trip is about more than sightseeing and patriotism. It is about building relationships, gaining historical perspective and opening students up to a future many had never before considered.

“To walk where George Washington walked felt like I was walking on sacred ground,” says Laurie Wilson of Arizona’s Navopache Electric Cooperative. “He was able to help create a country, but he was also a regular human, just like you and I. We can also create amazing things.”

Setting the Tone
First stops were highlights for two different groups of students. The Northwest contingent started at Fort McHenry. The Arizona delegation started at Arlington National Cemetery.

“Fort McHenry reinforced my belief that as Americans, we are resilient,” says Ethan Greer of Oregon’s Umatilla Electric Cooperative. “Even after all that loss and struggle, those men still taunted the British and asked for more.”

Jessica Truman of Nevada’s Lincoln County Power District has sung the national anthem many times, but learning about the battle at Fort McHenry “made the lyrics way more meaningful,” she says.

“The anthem definitely means more to me because of the great sacrifice of all the American soldiers who fought to maintain Fort McHenry,” adds Emily Bonus of Washington’s Benton Rural Electric Association. “It heightened my sense of patriotism now that I’ve seen firsthand what great obstacles our country has overcome.”

The visit to Fort McHenry “put in perspective how much we owe our soldiers,” says Bonny Daggett of Oregon Trail Electric Cooperative. “The men who fought in that battle were so patriotic. My father and brother serve in the U.S. Army, so I know freedom isn’t free. Seeing all the people at the memorials showed me that other people know, too.”

Arlington National Cemetery was the highlight for Leisel Griffin of Arizona’s Graham County Electric Cooperative.

“It is a special place that symbolizes the sacrifice and the joy that comes from the work of our military,” says Leisel. “All my life, I’ve grown up hearing about the history of the United States, but it wasn’t until I walked through a place so enriched with history that I started to realize that these were real people.

“I looked at the seemingly endless headstones and I am truly proud to be an American. I am grateful to live in a country where men and women of all ethnicities are willing to give their lives not only defending our home, but other nations that need our help.”

Alyson Wakefield of Graham County says she “gained a greater appreciation for the people that fought and died for my freedom,” and Hailee Alexander of Duncan Valley says she has “a greater understanding of who this country is built on and how many people die for this country to be free.”

“I will always cherish the memory of my first glance at the beauty of Arlington and the magnitude of dedication, strength and undying patriotism needed to be laid to rest within Arlington’s gates,” adds Keeley Wagley of Duncan Valley.

Sabrina Contreras of Sulphur Springs Valley Electric Cooperative was moved by seeing “how many people laid down their own lives so we could have better ones in a free country. It made me realize how lucky I am to live in a free country, because freedom isn’t free.”

“It is a very humbling experience to see so many graves of men and women who have fought so hard to make our country what it is today,” says Laurie of Navopache. “It is a very cool feeling to be connected to all of those men and women—joined by a love for America and a desire to be the best citizen that we can be. It gives us courage to see so many souls who died fighting for what they believed in. It inspires me to want to do my part, too, and although it may not be dying for my country, I can do the best I can to serve my country.”

“My pride and patriotism is stronger,” says Taressia Garcia of Arizona’s Aha Macav Power Service, noting the visit “made me want to continue my path to serve our country.”

The Holocaust Horror
At the Holocaust Memorial Museum, personal stories had a profound effect on students.

“At school, they tell you numbers of casualties and dates, but they never discuss names,” says Madison Furnas of Sulphur Springs. “Seeing their faces and reading their stories made a lasting impression. It helped me understand the reality of a tragic historical event.”

Jordan of Duncan Valley was moved by the identification book she received upon entering the museum. Each book tells the story of a man, woman or child from that gruesome period of history.

As visitors move from one floor to the next, they learn more about the person whose identity they have assumed, and their fate.

Some live. Others die.

“I take with me the depressing feeling and thought that there were real people who suffered for nothing,” Jordan says.

In history class, the Holocaust is a tragedy, but at the museum it becomes real, says Ethan of Umatilla.

“You see pictures and videos of the atrocities,” he says.
In a darkened room is a display of shoes of all sizes that belonged to Jews who were exterminated.

“The shoes are what really got me,” says Hailee of Duncan Valley. “Real people walked in those. They all had lives and stories, and they died for a horrible and unfair reason.”

“I saw shoes for people of all ages,” adds Leisel of Graham County. “Innocent children and their parents were murdered without reason. This memory is one I will keep with me forever.”

Camryn Martin of Sulphur Springs says the shoe room “made my heart hurt.”

“Seeing the pictures that you don’t usually get to see in class was eerie, not to mention the fact that no one spoke,” Camryn says. “It seemed kind of sacred.”

Standing in a freight train car that would have been packed with Jews being shipped to camps gave Kensington Huber of Sulphur Springs an appreciation for the awful conditions.

“My visit leaves me wondering how the Nazi regime could morally justify their actions, as well as thanking God for giving me this life I live in the United States of America,” says Keeley of Duncan Valley.

“There is no justification for what was done to all those people,” adds Elizabeth Barton of Arizona’s Mohave Electric Cooperative.

Dillon Jones of Graham County says he gained a better understanding “of how ruthless the Nazis were and how terrible the camps were. It helped me realize just how small most of my tribulations are compared to what they went through.”

“It put pictures to the words, and that just because someone is good at public speaking doesn’t mean you should trust them,” adds Matthew Gervais of California’s Anza Electric Cooperative.

“After visiting the Holocaust Museum, I will forever be grateful for my life and the freedoms I have,” says Alyson of Graham County.

Taressia of Aha Macav observes how the Holocaust “affected everything and everyone,” and she pledges to “never forget.”

Memorials Inspire
Although no one in her family has served in the military since the Civil War, Elizabeth of Mohave says she was brought to tears at the war memorials.

“These memorials are not just for taking pictures or to admire how great they look,” she says. “They are for remembering and honoring all those who gave their lives for ours.”

At the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall, Matthew of Anza saw a letter someone had placed at the base.

“It said, ‘Verified deceased, return to sender,’” Matthew says. “That really got to me. They are some of the real heroes in this country.”

Seeing the names engraved on the wall helped Keeley of Duncan Valley finally understand the experiences of her grandfather—a Marine during Vietnam—who never speaks of his time in the war.

“I have a grandfather who fought in Vietnam,” adds Ethan of Umatilla. “Both my history class and the Vietnam Memorial showed me how terrible the war was, and how courageous he is. My grandfather never really speaks about it, and when he came home he wasn’t really welcomed with open arms. Recently, I’ve started to see him in a different light.”

Brittney Nelson of Oregon’s Coos-Curry Electric Cooperative says seeing the memorials made her feel more appreciative of her grandfather and other veterans.

At the Vietnam Memorial, she and students from the Oregon delegation thanked a veteran for his service. He told the group how he had come to pay respects to the only female in Vietnam killed under enemy fire—a woman he had never met.

“He had us in tears because of his story and the pain in his voice,” Brittney says.

Laurie of Navopache says she could feel the emotion as she walked along the wall.

“It was shocking to see all the names and to realize that could have been my grandpa,” she says. “The letters and flags at the bottom of the wall reminded me that there are people who never got their family back from the war. It’s hard to view some of the war memorials.”

The war memorials remind Hailee of Duncan Valley that “this country is built on the blood of these men and women.”

“We often take our veterans’ sacrifice lightly, but these men and women gave all they had to defend their homes, their families, and you and me,” says Leisel of Graham County.

“It was so moving to know how many people sacrificed their lives for my freedom,” says Gunnar Sherman of California’s Plumas-Sierra Rural Electric Cooperative. “I will be forever grateful for those names on that wall.”

Searching the wall for the name of one of his grandfather’s friends who did not make it home from Vietnam left an impression on Dillon of Graham County.

“As I was looking over the wall and taking pictures, I finally realized how lucky I was that my grandfather was able to come home, and just how real war is,” says Dillon. “Each one of those names began to mean so much more. I began to respect all those men and women who died for my freedom much more than I had before. It’s amazing how a wall can be so influential.”

A Lasting Impression
Vicente Mather of Oregon’s Blachly-Lane Electric Cooperative says Youth Tour left him “more proud of my country than ever.”

While visiting the National Archives, someone asked a security guard if he was tired of standing in one spot all day.

“His response was, ‘No, I am honored to protect the Constitution,’” Vicente says.

Cooper Brooks of Oregon’s Consumers Power says the trip was an incredible privilege.

“My sense of patriotism has never been stronger,” he says. “I’m amazed by the beauty and respect commanded by each national building and memorial. My favorite place was the Lincoln Memorial because of its size and permanence. As soon as I saw it, I got a feeling of importance and timelessness emanating from it—like it had always been there and always would be.”

A takeaway for Heather Davenport of Oregon’s Central Electric Cooperative was a greater sense of patriotism.

“Seeing the memorials and museums helped me better understand how and why our country came to be, and put the magnitude of the sacrifices that so many Americans made for our country into perspective,” she says. “I was able to see firsthand so many of the things I had learned about in school. I left with greater knowledge, new friends and wonderful memories.”

For Melonie Dodson of Sulphur Springs, the Marine Corps Sunset Parade was her “Washington moment.”

“You could see for miles, the Washington Monument rising into the sky, behind it the Capitol lit ablaze by the setting sun,” says Melonie. “It was a perfect scene. Watching the Marines perform with incredible bearing and skill. When everyone stood for a moment of silence, all that could be heard was the lone song of a trumpeter standing on the Iwo Jima Memorial.

“I was standing at the place where America was created and where day by day it still grows. That was a moment I could never trade for anything else in the world. This truly was a once-in-a-lifetime trip.

“Seeing not only the places of history, but meeting the people who will be the next chapters of history was truly spectacular.”