I was allowed to ask Gen. David H. Petraeus one question on Monday morning, and as I sat in the Community of Christ Auditorium awaiting the start of the Korean War Veterans Appreciation Ceremony, I had no idea what that one question should be.

I was allowed to ask Gen. David H. Petraeus one question on Monday morning, and as I sat in the Community of Christ Auditorium awaiting the start of the Korean War Veterans Appreciation Ceremony, I had no idea what that one question should be.

“What are you going to ask him? I’ll ask him something if you ask him something,” my journalism colleague and 32-year veteran Kansas City Star reporter Brian Burnes said to me before the program’s start, though I’m sure he was just joking and making conversation.

Wonderful, I thought. No pressure whatsoever. And little did I know at that moment that because of where I was seated among some of the metro area’s finest journalists, my one question would lead off the press gaggle following Petraeus’ keynote address at the appreciation ceremony.

When I interviewed Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the U.S. Army chief of staff, last November following his tour of the Lake City Army Ammunition Plant, I read up on him for a good hour in preparation for the four or five questions I got to ask him. After all, a vast majority of these men’s illustrious careers with the U.S. Army began before I even entered the world in December 1985.  

But here I am, just an hour-and-a-half from interviewing Petraeus, and I get one question. I’m skimming through his prepared keynote address, “Far From Forgotten,” in my press packet when my question suddenly comes to mind.

Why didn’t I learn about the Korean War in school?   

I knew little – if anything – about the Korean War prior to last week.

I knew a war had occurred, and I knew it had taken place between World War II and the Vietnam War.

Sadly, that was the extent of my knowledge, until I attended the opening of hundreds of previously unreleased documents related to the Korean War at the Truman Library & Museum, just one of many events the library and museum has sponsored to honor the 60th anniversary of the war’s outbreak on June 25, 1950. I am light-years away from a scholarly status on the conflict, but at least I’m ahead of last week’s knowledge base.

Petraeus certainly stands among the most prestigious speakers I, as a young journalist, have covered, let alone interviewed.

On Monday, he was the commander of the United States Central Command, but as I write this, the Obama administration has announced Petraeus will succeed Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal as commanding general of American forces in Afghanistan.

Obama removed McChrystal, citing an erosion of trust following a Rolling Stone magazine article featuring scornful quotes from McChrystal and his staff about senior White House officials, according to numerous published reports.

We rose as a sign of respect as he entered the room, and each of us extended our hand in a friendly shake, introducing ourselves and the publication or station for which we work.

We sat as he gave a brief opening statement, just as he has probably done dozens if not hundreds of times before similar crowds. When he finished, he pointed at me as the person to lead off the question-and-answer session.

“Gen. Petraeus, I am 24 years old, and I graduated from high school in 2004. I played with presidential flash cards while I was growing up and consider myself pretty well-versed in history. I did not study the Korean War at all in school in kindergarten through 12th grade. Why did I not study the Korean War in school ... and what is being done educationally to keep the Korean War active in the classroom?”

I am not a four-star general. I did not receive my doctorate at Princeton University. I have not traveled outside of the United States, nor have I served my country in any branch of the armed forces.

I am none of these things that he is, but respectfully, Gen. Petraeus, I was highly disappointed in your answer to my valid question.

In a five-minute answer that could’ve been said in two, Petraeus said we study history to understand the context in which it happened and its place in current worldwide events. He said much stands to be learned from the thousands of Korean War veterans across the country, and he encouraged residents to purchase reading materials at a local bookstore related to the Korean conflict and to visit sites like the Korean War Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.

It all starts with education and with teachers who inspire their students to develop inquiring minds, Petraeus said. As he learned at West Point, Petraeus said individuals should aspire to achieve a collective – not individual – status as a scholar, an athlete and as a leader.

So, that’s it? I’m supposed to go to my local bookstore and purchase a book to educate myself on an event that broke out 35 years before my birth?

OK, that’s fine. I’ll make the $25 sacrifice to educate myself about this important moment in American history.

But what about today’s students? What efforts are taking place to educate them? In an interview Wednesday morning with Paul Edwards, senior fellow and founder of the Independence-based Center for the Study of the Korean War, I asked him how American classrooms could do a better job of incorporating the study of the Korean War, a question quite similar to the one I asked Petraeus on Monday.

“In the first place, they need to mention it,” replied Edwards, himself a Korean War veteran.

This response was one I had hoped would come from Petraeus, too. Instead, I was left to decipher an intellectual – yet rambling – reply filled with more philosophical discussion than an actual answer.

This morning, I reached under my bed and pulled out those 1988 Smithsonian Institution presidential flash cards, anxious to read what mention of the Korean War appears on Harry S. Truman’s card.

Into what war did Truman send American troops in 1950?

I know, I know. The Korean War.

Correct. The Korean War, which began when communist North Korea attacked South Korea.

Now I suppose a trip to the bookstore is in order.