I guess I just can’t imagine being the 18 year old that I was and all of a sudden getting a letter to report to some place that would put me through basic training and then in just a few short months ship me to the other side of the world to put that training to use.
Not advanced training, not specialized training, not a 4 year college degree worth of learning. Basic know-how to perform a task needed to accomplish a greater mission. A cog in the workings of what one could only hope is a well run machine.
As I chatted with Paul Swartzfager of Oil City outside Cranberry High School, listening to him tell me a little about his life and service, that thought went through my head. He served a tour in Vietnam and when his brother wanted to serve, but couldn’t he said he signed up for a second tour to go in his brothers place.
I couldn’t imagine that.
What a strong young man he was, what a strong older man he is now fighting through a stroke to keep his independence and still able to get around with a little help from a cane and still driving his pick-up truck.
Today I covered a Veterans’ Day event that Swartzfager and dozens of other veterans attended. It was held a week early at Cranberry High School so the school could honor the veterans without taking away from the community observances on the actual day of observance. This gives the school an opportunity to honor community and Cranberry family members in an assembly that also functions as a lesson to the students about the five branches of the services and who the men and women are in their community that have served in the military. Some in wars when they weren’t that much older than the students themselves.
The school had writing assignments and art projects centered around the event and Veterans’ Day. Some selected pieces were read aloud, the music department prepared songs and the art department created works that were on display. The gymnasium was packed full of people of all ages to honor the veterans. Veterans in their 20s all the way into their 90s.
World War Two veteran Frank Emanuel wore some of his medals proudly. He pointed out his French Legion of Honor medal as the one he is the most proud to wear. It sat pinned between a bronze star and a purple heart. He served in France, Italy and Africa. He said he was sent over to fight Rommel. He was also involved in the very long and deadly battle of Monte Casino in Italy. In his 90s today he still drives his car and walks at pretty good pace. And even though his purple heart was awarded from taking shrapnel in the back of his head, his thoughts are sharp as a tack.
Swartzfager and Emanuel’s story’swere only a couple of the many silent stories in the crowd that the students were honoring. Their stories weren’t told at the assembly, but each one has a story. The story’s are partially written in their faces, in their staggered walk or bent back, in their hand over their heart or resting on a cane and in their bowed head during a moment of silence. Their stories are in their eyes.
Bert Kephart served in the Navy during the Vietnam War from 1967 – 71. He has stories I’m sure but he diverted my questions to his son Jonathan who was killed serving his country in April of 2004 near Bagdad, Iraq. He said he tries to attend as many veteran’s services as he can.
Sgt. Sam Martz is an Army man who served in Vietnam from 1968-69. During the National Anthem he stood tall and saluted the flag.
Oil City’s VFW post commander Jason Reed spoke directly about honoring the veterans by honoring the flag and the National Anthem denouncing the current trend of sitting in protest during the anthem.
It’s a debate that will rage on, of course, as all controversial protests do in this country that gives its citizens the right of free speech. In fact, this country encourages its citizens to exercise that right in order to better understand its needs and the needs of all humanity. The veterans in that room may have their opinions on what is right and wrong, but they will defend the freedoms they once fought for or served to protect.
As a journalist, I of course, support and defend the freedom of speech and as an artist I fight for the freedom of expression. I went back to thinking about myself at 18 years old and wondered if I had even the slightest bit of what these men and women who went to war had – have now?
I was very fortunate to grow up in a time of relative peace, meaning the United States wasn’t engaged in a declared war or police actions and there was no draft. I didn’t sign up for military service because I always had a problem with authority figures and was always voicing my opinions. So I figured, instead of spending my time in the stockade or brig, I went to photography school and then art school (go ahead have a laugh) to try to find my worth in the world.
When I was little I did play war, I did watch war movies with John Wayne and Audie Murphy with my dad on an old black and white television set with rabbit ear antennas and I often ducked and rolled in my backyard with a crooked tree branch gun going pughhch pugchf for each shot I took that killed an enemy soldier and made me a hero.
I thought about that today too and can’t even imagine having that same kind of imagined play thought. Pretending to kill someone and be a hero.
I was fortunate that, in my life, all I had to do was use was my imagination shaped by the thoughts of heroism to go into battle to fight an enemy. These men and women had to live it. These men and women who didn’t think of it at all as heroic, but duty.
And I know many don’t want to talk at all about that duty and what they had to do or witness in war.
At the beginning of this blog I talked about Vietnam Veteran Paul Swartzfager who I chatted with outside the school. He mentioned his son who served in Iraq and he talked about PTSD or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. I asked him if he suffered at all from PTSD from his tour in Vietnam. He called it shell shocked and he admitted having issues, but thanked a doctor in the Erie VA for really helping him and many others out. A doctor who had served himself and understood what the veterans are going through.
And I wondered again about myself at 18 looking at these youngsters putting on this assembly to honor these men and women. Some of the veterans are relatives to the students, but not all. Do the words of the songs they sang, the words they wrote in essays and poems, the words they heard standing during the National Anthem and the words of the speakers have meaning for them? What did they mean for me 32 years ago?
And what do they mean to a veteran like Daryl Mong of Kossuth (below) served in the Air Force from 1956-60?
The story of that is in his eyes.
Sadly as I was attending this event Friday word reached back to the states that two Green Beret’s were identified killed in Afghanistan. One, Sgt. 1st Class Ryan Allen Gloyer, 34, of Zelienople was a Thiel College graduate. The other was Capt. Andrew D. Byers, 30, of Rolesville, N.C.