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‘Three life lessons’

Veteran Richard Graff shares his experiences with students

Created date

September 17th, 2018
Since 2011, veteran Richard Graff has shared his combat experiences with more than 6,000 students. He’s pictured here at Rocky Run Middle School in Ashburn, Va.

Since 2011, veteran Richard Graff has shared his combat experiences with more than 6,000 students. He’s pictured here at Rocky Run Middle School in Ashburn, Va.

Since 2011, Richard Graff has met with more than 6,000 students at 110 schools in Loudoun and Fairfax counties, detailing his experiences over 195 days of continuous combat as the 104th Infantry Division, known as the Timberwolves, fought their way through Belgium and Western Germany during WWII. 

“I want to talk directly to the kids, to look them directly in the eyes,” he says. “I tell the students that each day I wake up I am grateful for another sunrise. It’s not something to take for granted. No one knows how many sunrises they will see. I consider myself privileged to have witnessed [so many] sunrises. I hope these students get to see as many.”

Sharing his story

One of the reasons Graff’s lessons are so popular is because they are honest. By addressing the sights and sounds of the battlefield, he helps to create the sense of reality that words in a textbook could never achieve.

He candidly speaks of his first experience with incoming artillery and the impact it had on his life.

“Honestly, I was scared,” he says. “I was certain I’d never see daylight again. So I prayed. Not to get old or even for the war to end, but just to get one more day.”

Graff survived that day and the remaining days of his service. His experiences provided him with the clarity to see what matters most in life. It is from this clarity that he shares his popular “three life lessons.”

“First, learn all you can about everything you can,” he says. “Second, make all the friends you can. And finally, have all the fun you can. Throughout my life, I’ve learned the importance of each of these lessons, and I believe that in following them I’m living life to its fullest.”

Recently, Graff ran into a student who recognized him from a middle school talk he gave in 2015.

“She recognized me and told me that she still remembered the three life lessons I shared with her class,” he says. “She could recite them all. [The lessons] really stick with people. I was thrilled that I had made an impression on her.”

Sharing the honor

In addition to speaking to students, Graff volunteers his time welcoming fellow veterans to Washington, D.C., as part of the Honor Flight Network, a nonprofit organization created solely to honor America’s veterans for their sacrifices. The Honor Flight Network transports these American heroes to Washington, D.C., to visit and reflect at their national memorials.

Graff joins other volunteers at Washington Dulles International Airport to greet the veterans when they arrive and escort them to the buses that will take them to the National Mall.

“It’s a lot of fun meeting all the veterans,” he says. “I enjoy these little moments with people. I really want to help people smile. In fact, I consider it a personal failure if I don’t succeed.”

Recently, while waiting for the Honor Flight planes to land, Graff met a group of cheerleaders from Oakton High School, also there to welcome the veterans.

“During our discussion, I told them about my life lessons,” says Graff. “They listened intently and then asked questions. We had a great time.”

Busy schedule

Since he began addressing students almost nine years ago, Graff has appeared in numerous local Memorial Day parades, including the National Memorial Day Parade in Washington, D.C.

He also shares his experiences with his neighbors at Ashby Ponds, the Erickson Living community in Ashburn, Va., where he lives with his wife Jean, during history club and veterans club events.

“It’s funny how often I speak to people now,” says Graff. “As a young boy, I was painfully shy. I was afraid to speak in public. I understood that this fear could easily become a millstone around my neck. So I took a variety of speech classes. Just like rule number one—learn all you can about everything you can.”

Graff has no plans to ease up on his busy speaking schedule.

“I agree to every invitation I receive,” he says. “All you have to do is ask. That is why I am here, to share my story and the lessons I’ve learned.”

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