Normandy program gives Cardinal Gibbons sophomore up-close look at WWII vet

Posted January 19
Updated January 21

Rebecca Wicklin

— Rebecca Wicklin won't have to dodge machine gun fire when she steps onto Normandy Beach this summer.

When she gets there, the Cardinal Gibbons sophomore will be 16 years old. For a week in June, she will walk on the same French sand where so many kids—just a couple years older than her—died 73 years ago.

The thought isn't lost on her.

"That's just so scary knowing that someone that young could be doing something so humongous for their country," Wicklin said.

Wicklin is one of 15 students from across the United States who will make the trip to France as part of the Normandy: Sacrifice for Freedom program through National History Day. She and Paul Gauthier, a middle school teacher at St. Michael Archangel Catholic School in Cary, are tasked with telling the story of a person who died on that beach in 1944.

The course begins when Wicklin and Gauthier choose a veteran—preferably from eastern North Carolina—to study. The pair will then take part in online classes taught by WWII historians before traveling to Washington, D.C., in June to visit the National Archives.

"I'm hoping to bring someone's story to life because they're not recognized as individuals except to their family," Wicklin said. "So, I want to bring (him) to life and say, 'This person is not much older than us but did so much more than we ever have done. He gave the ultimate sacrifice for his country for that people he didn't even know.' For me, that's just so powerful."

Gauthier had Wicklin in class before she moved on to high school. For him, the chance to study a veteran so intensely is an opportunity to bring back a story that can help his other students understand the war a little better.

"Sometimes, I think you can't get kids to understand what it's like for thousands of people to die," Gauthier said from inside the classroom where he teaches 6th, 7th and 8th grade. "But if you get them to understand one, then multiply the one 4,000 times, I think they get that."

At the end of the course, Wicklin will build a website to memorialize the veteran she spent months researching. The websites showcase what the students learned in the program but live on as a way to remember the veterans who died.

On the group's last day in France, standing in the Normandy American Cemetery just a few hundred feet from the beach where so many troops died, the students will give a eulogy for the veteran they spent months getting to know.

Wicklin knows that will be a powerful moment.

"It's like talking about a friend," she said.


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