ARLINGTON, Va. – Just a few years ago, Lance Cpl. Steven Szwydek was a classmate of students at a high school in the mountains of Pennsylvania's Fulton County. Now the fallen Marine is part of their history lesson. On separate days this spring, students from all three high schools in his home county visited Arlington National Cemetery, where they stopped for a moment of silence at his white tombstone. The bus trips were paid for by a memorial fund established by Szwydek's parents.
Their quiet son — a history buff who loved to hunt deer — was 20 when he was killed in 2005 by a roadside bomb during his second tour in Iraq.
His mother, Nancy Szwydek, is a strong supporter of President Bush and the Iraq war but said the trips are not about politics or trying to influence students to join the military. She and her husband don't accompany the classes on the trips.
She sees the annual visits as a way to teach students "to respect our freedom." Teachers say the trips are as much about establishing connections — between kids growing up in a rural county, and world events.
Nancy and Michael Szwydek, who own a country store, decided a college scholarship in their son's name would not have made sense because he chose the Marines over college.
"I think he would not want himself being the focus ... but I think he'd be real happy the students have had a history lesson," Nancy Szwydek said during an interview at her home in Warfordsburg, Pa., near the Maryland border.
For some of the students, the stop at Szwydek's grave is personal because they attended school with him at Southern Fulton Junior/Senior High. They recalled seeing their teachers cry the day it was learned he had died.
"It was very nice of them to let us experience this, and we're supporting Steven and that's the main reason we're down here," said Miranda Blackburn, 17, during her visit to Arlington.
A student from another high school, Kirstie Barton, also 17, said the cemetery brings home the reality of the war.
"It's kind of hard to grasp that people go over there and they die every day and their families are missing them," she said.
Tim Mills, 17, said two relatives have served in Iraq and he is considering joining the Pennsylvania National Guard.
"If I die, I die. There's no stopping that. That's God's plan. Just, that's how I look at it. I'm ready to go. Maybe I'll be here one day," he said.
Angie Booth, a teacher from Szwydek's school who helped lead one of the trips, grew up next to him and baby-sat him.
She pointed out to her students that since a school trip last year, two new rows of graves of soldiers killed in Iraq had been added near Szwydek's. Some were so fresh they didn't have tombstones yet — just flowers.
Booth said she wants the students to learn that, "even though we're a very rural community, we're not isolated from this either."
Szwydek joined the Marines when he was 17, leaving for boot camp four days after graduating from high school.
On his original paperwork, he wrote that he wanted to be buried at sea.
"I said, 'Steven, why do you want to be buried at sea?' At this time, it was a joke," said Nancy Szwydek.
"He said, 'No special reason, Mom, I just thought it would be cool.' And I said, 'Change it,' so he just put buried with full military honors."