Scottsdale resident, karate competitor finds strength in veterans’ stories

Posted 11/7/19

A good story does more than entertain; it connects us to each other and to our history in ways that nothing else can, breaking down the walls we’ve built between each other, sharing hard-earned lessons across time and space.

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Scottsdale resident, karate competitor finds strength in veterans’ stories


Editor's Note: A previous version of this story misidentified Sabrina Arevalo's sport,  Mr. Gaan's name, USA Karate’s Junior National Team and Alison DiMuro's name. It also incorrectly state Ms. Arevalo's mother's occupation, where Ms. Arevalo received her scholarship and  her course of study at the University of Arizona. We apologize for any confusion this may have caused.

A good story does more than entertain; it connects us to each other and to our history in ways that nothing else can, breaking down the walls we’ve built between each other, sharing hard-earned lessons across time and space.

Sabrina Arevalo, 18, has crouched in midnight foxholes, flinched at the crack of a jungle branch, dozed in the damp squalor of a prison camp and gritted teeth at the white-hot rip of shrapnel through delicate skin.

Ms. Arevalo has never been to Vietnam --- not in person --- but after hours spent interviewing veterans of the Vietnam War and sharing in their remembered hardships, she has a better understanding of that brotherhood than most --- and of the horrors, too.

Ms. Arevalo is no stranger to physical conflict, although her warzone is more regulated than the battlefield: a black belt in karate, she recently became the first Scottsdale resident ever selected to represent her country on USA Karate’s Junior National Team.

There is an athlete’s intensity at Ms. Arevalo’s core, offset by a sparkling demeanor. Her passion is clear in her eyes when she talks about the veterans she’s interviewed, in her voice when she retells their stories. Sabrina recently graduated from Notre Dame Prep, where she leaves behind three years as the chapter president of Veterans Heritage Project, an experience she credits as foundational to the person she is today.

Through VHP, students connect with local veterans to conduct in-depth interviews about their personal histories, which they then edit into fully-fledged stories and publish at the end of each school year in the student-made book Since You Asked. Students develop their communication skills and walk away with a deeper sense of patriotism and civic pride. For Ms. Arevalo, it did that and so much more.

It’s hard to believe when the confident young woman says she was shy and reserved growing up. For her, there was always one place where she felt in control: the karate mat. Now a member of USA Karate’s Junior National Team, it was her grandfather who got her into martial arts at just five years old, a bond the two have shared ever since; and one that opened the door to a whole new world for Ms. Arevalo.

Her grandfather, Frank Gaan, opened one the first Tae Kwon Do schools in Germany in the mid-20th century in part of his fascinating personal history: born in China but raised as a refugee in Japan, he eventually became an American citizen and joined the military, later fighting in Vietnam. He refined his Tae Kwon Do practice during his years stationed in Korea, bringing it with him when he was transferred to Germany.

His time in Vietnam was a blank space for the otherwise close Gaan family; like many other veterans, he had no desire to burden his family with memories he wished he could forget. In a sort of cosmic poetry, it was karate that ultimately brought the family closer together.

“I was a really shy freshman,” admits Ms. Arevalo. “I didn’t want to do anything outside my bubble. I just wanted to go to school, train, and hang out with my friends.”

Still, her parents pushed her to get involved at school, so rather than pick up a sport that would interfere with karate, she learned about VHP from her sparring partner, Alison DiMuro, whose mother Michelle serves as the executive director of VHP.

There was one slight problem, however: Notre Dame Prep had no VHP Chapter.

Fortunately, Ms. Arevalo is one of those rare people who gets excited by obstacles. So, she spent her freshman year working with the administration, garnering student interest, and tracking down a teacher willing to be the club’s sponsor. She succeeded in establishing a VHP chapter at her school, though the initial turnout was not exactly what she hoped: Ms. Arevalo was joined by two other students for a grand total of three members.

Despite the lackluster beginning, Ms. Arevalo was eager to get started. Her first subject was her karate coach’s mother-in-law, an original “Rosie the Riveter,” a small, spunky woman named Betty who aided the WWII effort by assembling tanks. As excited as Ms. Arevalo was, she had a case of nerves before her first interview. After all, probing for the intimate details of a stranger’s life is no small task.

That’s when her mother gave her some advice she’s carried with her since then: “Just jump into it like you’d jump on the karate mat.”

That’s what Ms. Arevalo did, and her interview with Betty built her confidence enough that she felt she was ready to do her grandfather’s story justice.

“All the veterans you interview become your family,” said Ms. Arevalo. “But when it really is your family, there’s some added pressure.”

The Arevalo family gathered and listened as Ms. Arevalo asked her questions, and Grandpa Frank shared his stories. Some stories were light and funny in retrospect, like him mistaking the padding steps of a water buffalo for a midnight attack by the Vietcong. Others, like lying in the mud with shrapnel searing into his stomach and arms after his transport was rocked by an explosion, were not. Hearing the stories behind the scars they could see across his body brought the whole family to tears.

“It’s heart-wrenching to hear about this happening to someone you love. You’re there with him, right at the same spot in the jungle. ... You hear firsthand what it was like to go through all that horror,” she said.

“But [the veterans] come back and talk about ‘this is what I learned; this is how I grew.’ You hear about these huge, historically significant battles they were in, but to them, that wasn’t even the most significant day. ... They’ll barely remember what it was like being shot down during the Tet Offensive, but they’ll remember funny stories they had with their brothers.”

Discovering this untold chapter of her grandfather’s life, and the positivity with which he could look back on such difficult times, opened Ms. Arevalo’s eyes to the power of VHP’s program.

Editor's Note: Zac Dunn is a public relations professional