VIRGINIA BEACH — Merri Jo Abernethy and her husband were walking through their Kings Grant neighborhood in 2015 when they found a yard sale — and story that would inspire a search for more.
A retired captain was selling items from his career to downsize before moving into a nearby retirement community. As they asked about his life, the veteran invited them inside to talk.
“We called our son and said, ‘You need to walk down here,’ ” she said.
The encounter led Abernethy and her son, Miles — now a sophomore cadet in First Colonial High School’s NJROTC program — to capture veterans’ stories that might otherwise someday be lost. The project, “Vets and Cadets,” matches local JROTC cadets with veterans to record interviews that are later sent to the Library of Congress.
In the third event since the project launched last year, cadets from First Colonial and Norview high schools on Saturday interviewed 18 veterans at First Colonial Inn Senior Living Community in Hilltop.
Jonathan Rose, a First Colonial junior, was paired with Dick Bonelli, a veteran, who was awarded a Silver Star for action in Korea in 1950. The war hero and cadet talked about life, sacrifice, and discipline.
“I fought every day,” Bonelli, 86, said of a hardscrabble childhood in the Bronx, where his father worked long hours away from home and his mother suffered from alcoholism.
Bonelli joined the to “see the world” and to get away from troubles at home. During basic training in South Carolina, he learned to handle a weapon and to take orders — a big change from his days as a rebellious teen.
“They straightened that out in a hurry,” he said.
Bonelli was 19 when he fought in the Battle of Chosin Reservoir, a five-night struggle fending off more than 100,000 Chinese fighters in freezing temperatures north of Pyongyang.
After a fellow service member abandoned his post, Bonelli took over machine gun duties firing at an enemy compound atop a nearby hill, he said.
“Very good job, sir,” Rose, the cadet, said between questions.
Describing the event that earned him a Purple Heart, Bonelli said he was taking food to a fellow when a bullet ripped through his back, breaking his ribs and lodging in his lung.
Rose asked him what it felt like to be shot.
“Think of a hot poker iron on the front of a truck — and it’s pure white from being burned — and the truck coming down at 200 mph, and hits you in the back,” Bonelli said. ” … I still suffer today.”
After the interview, Rose said the face-to-face interaction with a veteran gave him a new perspective.
“Being able to hear that story,” he said, “it gave me chills.”
With the recording archived, others will be able to share his experience.
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