The Gratitude Project: Sixth-graders uncover history by interviewing veterans, family members

  • Gratitude Project Valerie Del Carlo
  • Gratitude Project Dan Barlow answers questions
  • Assistant principal shares story
  • Murdy and Barlow

Before enlisting in the U.S. Army during the height of the war in Vietnam, Dan Barlow aspired to become a history teacher.

In some ways, that aspiration came true as former Army Ranger and 1st Lt. Barlow continues to donate his time to share stories of his service in Vietnam and life lessons with students at Murdy Elementary School in the Garden Grove Unified School District. 

Teachers Valerie Del Carlo and Mark Keller launched “The Gratitude Project” in 2014, giving students opportunities to interview war veterans, elders who escaped traumatic historic events and their own family members. This was Barlow’s fourth time participating in this project.

On Wednesday, four students named Alaina, Howard, Thanh and Nhi read the questions that the whole sixth-grade class prepared for Barlow. They asked the nearly 77-year-old veteran questions to learn about his upbringing and life prior to his enlistment.

“My family has served this country in one way or another,” Barlow said. “My dad was in the Navy so I thought I should continue the tradition.” 

The students wondered about what Barlow was like when he was their age, where he was born and his responsibilities in the service. The questions progressed to more serious ones like whether he experienced survivor’s guilt and who his best friend was. 

“I lost him in 1970 and I still pray for him today,” Barlow said. “His name was Cleveland Floyd Bridgeman. He died in service for this great country, trying to make sure that communism wouldn’t take from the South Vietnamese people, which it eventually did.” 

The former ranger was candid with the students. He answered every question and didn’t hold back. While he recollected the tense and scary moments where he didn’t know if he’d return home after the war, he did share fond memories about interacting with the children who lived along the Vietnamese and Cambodian border.

“Young kids would hang out outside of our base,” Barlow said. “We’d give them anything we had like soft drinks and candy. We loved the children.”

Murdy teachers and Barlow
Teachers Valerie Del Carlo and Mark Keller created “The Gratitude Project” six years ago. (Courtesy of the Garden Grove Unified School District)

Murdy Elementary is located in Garden Grove and in an area known to many as Little Saigon. About 70 percent of the student population are of Vietnamese descent. Looking at the 70 students sitting in the classroom that morning, Barlow couldn’t help but think about the journey that many of the students’ parents and grandparents endured when they escaped Vietnam.

“I want you to listen carefully to this,” Barlow said. “You need to ask your parents and grandparents about the sacrifices they made, with only the hope that there’s possibly something better. The sacrifices they made were unbelievable.” 

The project at Murdy empowers students to research and study veterans and others who have overcome significant challenges in life. Many students uncover details of their family legacy and develop a deeper sense of personal gratitude with reflections through art and writing.

At the end of the school year, the veterans who participated in the project including Barlow will attend a culmination event where the students showcase to the community what they learned from their honored guests. 

The list of veterans who have spoken to the students this school year includes U.S. Army 1st Lt. Kevin Davenport and U.S. Navy Seal Andy McTigue. 

Wrapping up his visit, the veteran had one last thing to tell the students.

“You are everything that makes America great,” Barlow said.