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Veteran tries to motivate students to vote

Posted: Tuesday, October 29, 2002

LINCOLN, Neb. -- The young faces stared intently at the wrinkled visage at the front of the room.

Bernard Nider, a hearing aid in his right ear, held them in his grasp. They were just children, almost the age he was when he stormed the beach at Normandy and instantly became a man.

He told them about dodging bullets and bombs that horrible day, the heroism he felt leading the charge, his emotions when he learned he was one of only two men on his landing boat to survive it.

But the message the 78-year-old veteran most wanted to deliver to the 21 high school seniors was about responsibility, and exercising their privilege to vote.

''The price of peace today is very high. We have to get involved and vote,'' Nider said.

Nider had come to Lincoln Northeast High School in a working-class neighborhood as part of Nebraska Secretary of State John Gale's plan to motivate young people to go to the polls.

Nider's plea reached his young audience.

''Hearing his story and listening to what hardships he went through, it makes me want to vote,'' 18-year-old Staci Lenertz said.

Joe Wiechman, who is also Staci's age and already had plans to vote for the first time Nov. 5, said Nider's story ''just kind of reinforced it.''

Only 41 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds in the nation are registered to vote, according to the National Association of Secretaries of State. That is lower than any other age group. Turnout for Nebraska voters age 24 and younger has been around 20 percent in 1998 and 2000, a sharp decline from 55 percent or better turnout in the 1970s, Gale said.

Recognizing the problem, the National Association of Secretaries of State last year recommended that state and local governments do more to educate and reach out to voters.

In some states, young voters were sent cards for their 18th birthday with a voter registration form tucked inside, organizers arranged youth summits, some even held mock voting days.

In Nebraska, Gale decided to retool an existing ''Vote in Honor of a Veteran'' program started in 2000. He scrapped the original plan of having numerous veterans submit their biographies, which would be sent to students for inspiration.

Instead, Nider's story was chosen as the one that would be sent to social studies teachers in Nebraska high schools, about 350 in total.

The hope is that teachers will use it as part of a lesson that will allow students to personalize the importance of being an active citizen and lifelong voter, Gale said.

He asked teachers to read Nider's story in class, discuss sacrifices veterans have made, encourage students to talk with other veterans they know, and invite veterans into class for discussions.

''What we're trying to do is connect your generation with other generations that have made tremendous sacrifices,'' Gale told the students, six of whom will be old enough to vote in November.

Wearing a bolo tie and cap emblazoned with the symbol of the U.S. Army 29th Infantry Division, Nider sat at the front of the room at the teacher's desk, an American flag hanging overhead.

He had no props, no videos, no handouts.

But he had vivid memories.

Nider was living on his family's farm in Plymouth, Neb., before he enlisted in the Army in March 1943. Just over a year later, June 6, 1944, he was storming Omaha Beach at Normandy with thousands of other soldiers.

He was 19 years old.

Most of the men became seasick as the powerful waves bounced the boat through peaks and valleys. Nider, his hands slightly trembling, recalled running from crater to crater in the sand, trying to avoid the German bombs.

''We were all disorganized, but everyone was ready to fight.''

The students who had been so boisterous when they entered the room fell silent. A heater quietly chugged in the back corner.

''It was tough. We lost a lot of people,'' Nider said.

Commanders took stock of the casualties: Nider and one other man were the only ones from his landing vessel to make it out alive. They left behind in Normandy some 50,000 dead.

Did he fight again after Normandy, the students wanted to know. Was it difficult adjusting to life after the war? Has he ever returned to Normandy?

To each question, Nider answered, ''Yes.''

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On the Net:

Vote in Honor of a Veteran: http://www.sos.state.ne.us/voteveteran/veteranmenu.htm



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