Did the students who were ranked highest academically in my eighth grade class in 1963 end up earning the highest salaries in their lifetimes?
Did those who were chronic troublemakers end up in prison?
Last month I attended my grammar school reunion, and, disappointingly, the above questions remain unanswered. What news and information I could gather from the 60 classmates over pizza, hamburgers and beer did not include tax returns or police reports.
But one fact did stand out: a dominant influence in our lives over the past half century has been the U.S. military. The first indication of this truth was classmate Jack Starshack arriving at the reunion in his pickup truck, a yellow and green Vietnam War campaign ribbon hanging from the rear view. Drafted over 40 years ago, Starshack was shipped to Phu Bai, where he headed the financial division, in charge of payroll for every G.I. in the country. Though never in a firefight, he says all these years later he still recalls the worst sound on earth, the metallic plunk of a mortar being launched in the direction of the nearby airfield, and the hell of uncertainty for the next several seconds as to where it would land.
A female member of our class lost a husband to the Vietnam War. That is, he survived literally and physically, but upon his return to the States, he displayed all the symptoms of what today we would call severe post traumatic stress syndrome. The conclusion of his difficult struggle back in the real world was his walking away from the family, never to be seen again.
The young woman adapted, remarried, and made a solid life for her two children by her soldier husband. But there remains a sad and dark place in their memory, which is revisited at times like Veterans Day, which, of course, is this Monday.
Classmate and veteran Jerry Kamper was also drafted and shipped to Vietnam, landing in the 4th Battalion, 39th Infantry of Col. David Hackworth. Due to the notoriously brutal, “tough love” training, Hackworth’s troops became known as the most deadly and efficient fighting force in the war.
His military decorations notwithstanding, Jerry says he did nothing singularly heroic, and that he’s simply grateful and honored to have been accepted as a soldier by the rest of his comrades.
Walter McCollom, who in his youth soldiered in both the U.S. Army and Illinois National Guard, continues to serve today as director of military outreach for employer support of the Guard and Reserve. The program protects the rights of men and women to retain their jobs during and after military service, while also providing education and assistance in obtaining employment.
Tony Stazzone was drafted into the Army and stationed at Camp Snow of the Korean Demilitarized Zone for two years. Afterward, he married Maureen Farley, and the two of them raised five children in the same home that Tony grew up in.
Veteran Dave Murphy, whom I’d known since second grade (we sat alphabetically by last name), says of the military: “It changed my entire life.” Having signed up for the Air Force in 1969, he fulfilled some of his duty in Tennessee, but most of it in California, where he chose to stay to this day.
The Air Force, he says, brought him to California, to the base near Barstow, where he met the woman he would marry. They raised two daughters together. After being discharged in 1973, he made use of the G.I. Bill to enroll in the Columbia School of Broadcasting, which led to a celebrity career as a rock-’n’-roll DJ.
Now take just this partial list of stories from a single class, multiply it by hundreds of thousands of schoolrooms throughout the country, and you get the sense of how war and the military has so dominated the culture of our generation.
As long as there is war or the threat of war anywhere on the planet, we remember the generosity and sacrifice of our brothers and sisters in the military on Veterans Day And I want to convey personal thanks to those who were by my side on St. Bernadette’s playground 50 years ago, and who later went on to safeguard the American dream for us all.