Purple Heart recipient opens up to Flinn students

When retired Navy Sgt. Tom Stone spoke to eighth grade American History students at Flinn Middle School, it was the first time that teacher Niki Boniface heard her brother-in-law talk about the Vietnam War.

She remembered when she asked him to help her with a college paper that required talking with a veteran. He quickly said no. “There was no discussion, nothing.”

Flinn Vietnam vet 2015Even so, she thought she’d take a leap and ask him whether he would speak to the students about his two tours of duty in Vietnam. She was so sure he’d say no, she didn’t say a word to her students.

Even after he said yes and they set a date, she still didn’t say anything, thinking he might change his mind.

Sgt. Stone turned up alright, and not only spoke to one of Mrs. Boniface’s classes, he spoke to two. His talk May 6 covered many of the topics the Rockford Public Schools students had only read about in books.

Somehow, opening up to the students must have been easier than broaching the painful topic with loved ones. “I wanted to bring it alive to the kids,” Mrs. Boniface said.

Sgt. Stone painted a vivid picture for the students about his work in a construction battalion, building hospitals, schools and roads. He talked about the difficulty of clearing dense foliage. He talked of one particular mission, paving a path up a steep elevation for a command center for the Marines, close to the North Vietnamese border.

He also answered one of the questions a student had for him: “If you could forget one thing about the war, what would it be?”

In that answer, Mrs. Boniface got a clue why her brother-in-law was awarded the Purple Heart.

He answered, simply, that he would like to forget an attack by the Viet Cong when he was injured. Although Mrs. Boniface knew her brother-in-law had been hit with shrapnel, and that two fellow battalion members died in the attack, she did not know the circumstances for which he received his commendation.

She still doesn’t know, but he shared more with her and her 60 eighth graders than he had in decades. She was awed by the physical and technical nature of the work he did, the tough conditions he faced, and that he did it all with a heavy rifle on his back.  “I couldn’t be prouder,” she said.

Mary Kaull is communications coordinator for the Rockford Public Schools. Please like RPS 205 on Facebook and follow us on Twitter and Instagram.