BISMARCK, N.D. - On the flight home, Sylvia Lynch would try to explain what happened to her and 300 high school seniors in North Dakota while taking part in the 200th anniversary of the Lewis and Clark Expedition during the third week of August.
But how could the youth coordinator for the District of Columbia National Guard possibly tell someone who wasn’t there about the Lewis & Clark Youth Rendezvous 2006 sponsored by the National Guard Bureau and hosted by the North Dakota National Guard?
There was too much to tell. “It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” Lynch concluded before falling asleep, like all of the equally exhausted 10 youths she escorted to the event.
“This was the big National Guard event of the entire bicentennial,” said George Donnelly, senior program analyst for the National Guard Bureau. “One of the primary reasons for the Corps of Discovery’s success was the military decorum and the military values.”
The National Guard has taught thousands of students beyond those who attended Youth Rendezvous 2006 about Lewis and Clark and about the nation’s armed forces, Donnelly said.
“It’s provided the opportunity to get the military story – primarily the Guard story – back into the classroom,” he said. “We have reached more than 130,000 students.”
The students came to North Dakota from every state and four territories. Contest-winning essays on Lewis and Clark themes earned them their tickets.
To write the essays, the students researched the 1804-to-1806 Corps of Discovery expedition credited with opening the West for the young United States.
“My great heroes consisted of Superman, Wonder Woman and all of those comical heroes,” wrote Nicholas Claudel of Augusta, Maine. “When I heard of this trip, I really thought of what they did for us as a nation, and it’s a lot more than any old superhero ever did.”
When the students – many making their maiden plane flight, some traveling 24 hours – landed in Bismarck, N.D., on Aug. 13, they abandoned the dry history of their textbooks.
“History will come alive for them,” promised Maj. Gen. Michael Haugen, adjutant general of the North Dakota National Guard.
Did it ever.
For five days, the students were immersed in the Lewis and Clark story. Surrounded by Citizen-Soldiers of today’s National Guard who had volunteered to make the adventure happen, the high school seniors learned about the opening of the American West, the military of the early 19th century and the 21st century Minutemen.
“Oh, man, it’s fun,” said Samuel Duah, of Washington, D.C. The 17-year-old listed his highlights, pouring them out like .45-caliber rounds had poured from the Gatling’s Battery Gun the students saw fired at Fort Abraham Lincoln.
The mild weather. Traveling the furthest West he had ever been. Sleeping for a night in an army tent. Eating military rations at Fort Mandan. Meeting people from all over the United States. Learning more about Capt. Meriwether Lewis, Capt. William Clark and the Corps of Discovery.
“I already said I loved it here, right?” Duah concluded. “I’m glad I won the essay, and I’m glad I took the time to write it.”
Still, Duah had only scratched the surface.
The places they saw: Knife River Indian Village. Fort Mandan. The Missouri River. Fort Abraham Lincoln. Medora. Bismarck. Washburn.
“I wish it was longer than a week, just from what I’ve seen already,” Adrian Tutein, 17, of the Virgin Islands, said on the first full day.
The challenges they undertook included rafting on the Missouri River, climbing on a high-ropes confidence course, riding on a wagon train, learning Native American dances.
“This is a great experience for us,” said Ashley Ames, 16, of Montana, after riding a zip line on the confidence course. “It’s something you don’t do every summer.”
They heard stories about Sakakawea, from Amy Mossett, a scholar of the Native American woman who accompanied Lewis and Clark; about York, the African-American slave Clark so highly valued for his service during the expedition but resisted setting free; and about the two leaders and the sergeants and privates who made the military expedition.
“I really liked talking one-on-one with the re-enactors when they stayed in character,” said Elisabeth Garrett, 17, of Pennsylvania. “I ate lunch with President Lincoln, and he answered all our questions just like he was President Lincoln and we were in that time period.”
The students traded stories about themselves and their families on the long bus rides around North Dakota. They quizzed the Citizen-Soldiers who accompanied them about today’s National Guard and why they enlisted or got commissions.
“It’s a little bit different than what I’m used to,” said Cody Boulware, 17, of Iowa. “It’s a lot more structured. It’s sort of interesting to know why they do it. It makes a lot more sense.”
As the week came to an end, the students danced with Native Americans, Citizen-Soldiers, their adult escorts and with each other. They signed each other’s T-shirts and promised to stay in touch. Some of them cried.
They were unequivocal in their thanks to the National Guard in general and to North Dakota in particular, which had shone in its generous hospitality like the sun had shone on its Great Plains.
“I’m very thankful to the National Guard for doing this,” Duah said. “I’ve gained a new respect for them. Now I see what they do, and it’s pretty cool.”
North Dakota Gov. John Hoeven echoed those sentiments, if in different words.
“The National Guard has been just a tremendous part of the whole event,” the governor said. “They are No. 1, whether it’s taking care of us at home, border security, or fighting a war abroad. They are outstanding, and we appreciate them.”