Eddie Leibbrand leaned forward in his chair and got just about as close as he could to the middle-schoolers to be certain that they heard his every word.

"Love your country," the 94-year-old World War II veteran told his rapt audience, every word punctuated by a finger jab into the air. "And learn your history so that you know what it took to keep this country great."

As he spoke, 13-year-old Harry Peterson and 14-year-year-old Jacob Schomer furiously took notes. They had already asked Leibbrand all sorts of questions -- Where did he serve? What were his days like? Was he scared? -- during the annual Veterans Day lunch at Jones Middle School in Upper Arlington Nov. 2. Leibbrand, a Columbus resident, was one of 99 veterans who joined the eighth-grade classes for the 16th annual get-together.

Military and U.S. flags lined the walkways where the veterans entered. Students had transformed the gymnasium into a patriotic sea of red, white and blue for the event, and the band, orchestra and choir entertained.

The veterans were encouraged to bring their own scrapbooks, uniforms and photos to share with students; 91-year-old WWII veteran Harold Rowe and his son, Curt, brought part of their extensive war-memorabilia collection for the kids to check out.

The Norden Bombsight -- America's "secret weapon" that helped the B-17 bombardiers hit their targets -- was a particular hit.

Principal Jason Fine told the students they were in the company of greatness, and advised them to soak in all the history and knowledge around them.

"This is an opportunity for you to press pause, put your phones away, close your laptops and have a personal conversation with our heroes," he said. "You get to learn from the best today. You get to learn from true, real-life heroes and legends who have a story to tell."

The veterans represented WWII and every war since. Each was "hosted" by groups of two to four students. Leibbrand, who served with the Army's 110th Infantry Division, told his group of how he spent four months as a prisoner of war. Three small potatoes a day was all he got to eat, he told them, and he dropped from 168 pounds to just 98. He was never certain he'd leave the German POW camp alive.

So Harry and Jacob asked him about courage and about sacrifice. They asked him what those words mean to him.

And he told them: "Sacrifice means that if I had the chance, I'd do it all over again."

And courage? "Courage is what's in your heart."

Jacob said listening to Leibbrand's stories helped him realize just how much veterans give while serving.

"And he said he'd do it again," Jacob said. "That's pretty amazing."

hzachariah@dispatch.com

@hollyzachariah