LAS VEGAS - Students enter the gym at Robert O. Gibson Middle School with the anticipation of seeing a rock star. In reality, they see 88-year-old Gaetano Benza who is eager with anticipation.
"This is the first school I am speaking to, and I am very honored," he said.
Benza was 18-years-old when he enlisted in the military. Soon after, he was aboard a ship heading for Omaha Beach during the D-Day invasion June 6, 1944.
Benza survived D-Day. Scores of his friends, however, did not. Sixty nine years later, his memory of them still brings tears.
"I did this (making the Sign of the Cross) to have God protect me, so I'd come back here," he said.
"He obviously is traumatized by the memories he can't get rid of, and, obviously, we need to respect that more than we do right now," said eighth grader Taylor Ewing.
"I learned a lot. I felt what he was feeling. I felt a lot of empathy, like when he talked about the war. I can't imagine seeing my friends die," added eighth grader Geneva Williams.
Benza's history lesson for these leadership students is not meant to be depressing. At times, he's uplifting and comical.
"How many of you believe I'm 88-years-old?" he jokingly asked the crowd.
The students got to feel the sand from D-Day's beaches and hear the wisdom of someone trying to impart hope and better days for our next generation.
"If you keep your head going, read, take activities and participate, you're going to be like me at 88 years old," he said.
"It's just really amazing to hear these stories. They stood up for us when we couldn't," said eighth grader Tikvah Sample.
The students invited Benza to speak as part of their studies on the Congressional Medal Honor Program.
As for Benza, at 88, he's still cutting hair three days a week at Jesse's Barber Shop. He will be in France in June for the 70th anniversary of the D-Day invasion.
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