Last week, students at Loveland Middle School spent a day in the company of heroes. It was part of an annual event which brings in an array of veterans to talk to the 450 members of the eighth grade class.
I wasn’t able to get a definitive count, but there were probably twenty veterans this spring, representing all branches of the military.
The school has been hosting this kind of gathering once a year, since 2003, in part in response to the attacks on 9/11. After all, if a nation is going to war, it seems students, teachers, administrators and the people of that nation should have a clear idea what that entails.
Over the years students have heard a number of moving tales. Joe Whitt, who survived the attack on Pearl Harbor, came every year for a decade until his health failed. Melvin Burdine first visited in 2005, sixty years after a Japanese sniper shot him in the back and nearly killed him at Iwo Jima. Mark Adams has missed only one chance to come and tells listeners too young to remember Saddam Hussein what it was like to fly an F-16 in combat. Last week speakers included Joe Jeffcoat, father of four Loveland students, who was badly wounded in Iraq when a rocket propelled grenade destroyed his position. Chuck Garrett, who did a tour in Iraq, too—and some years earlier a tour of Loveland Middle School as a seventh and eighth grade student—was back again as was Bill Mansfield, who helped mop up the last Nazis in Europe.
Me? I come because I helped set up the first visits and I, too, am a veteran—but no hero. I was a clerk in a Marine supply unit during the Vietnam War and never got closer to the fighting than Camp Pendleton, California. I used to joke with students (I taught at Loveland Middle School for thirty-three years), saying: “Yeah, I defended my country with my trusty staple gun.”
If all I did was fill out paperwork, most veterans who come are real heroes. The way the program is designed, speakers stay in one room and students rotate to hear different vets talk. Garrett was not the only former LMS student to visit in 2016. Phil McDaniel, who served with a Marine artillery unit from 2004-2008, and missed a tour in Iraq only because he broke his collarbone during training, was also present.
“I begged my first sergeant to be allowed to go,” he told an audience of young people during one session. “I said I’d do anything, computer work. Anything! Just let me go.”
His request was denied.
The man who has run the program for eight years is Dave Fletcher, himself a veteran, and a graduate of the U. S. Military Academy, now a hard-working teacher. And this year he put together a superb slate of speakers: Garrett, McDaniel, Mark Jacquez, who saw combat in Iraq, and Chris Tobias, who served with the U. S. Army in Afghanistan, all graduates of the Loveland City Schools.
For the day, Dave paired me off with Chris, because this was the first year the young vet had spoken to kids and Dave knows I know how the program is supposed to work and wanted to ensure everything went well.
Thanks to S/Sgt. Tobias it did. By coincidence, Tobias was sitting in my history class on 9/11. So I brought along a yearbook and when I sat down and listened to him speak I passed it round and let this year’s eighth graders see what a hero looked like when he was their age. In his old photo Chris is round-faced and chunky, wearing glasses. “I was a band nerd,” he admits with a laugh.
I’ve been involved with this program ever since it started but every year I come away feeling I’ve just been through one of the most important days I’ve ever spent in the field of American education.
The speakers help students—help all listeners—understand that wars are fought by ordinary men and women. (We’re still trying to convince Kellie, a former U. S. Army nurse and Iraq War veteran, also a Loveland graduate, to visit some year; but she has trouble to this day talking about her experiences.)
In each of four sessions, with groups of 20 or 25 or 30 students, Tobias proved to be an engaging speaker. I talked briefly, to start, telling kids I was an average student when I was their age, happy to finish in the bottom half of my 1967 Revere High School graduating class. I talked about my lack of motivation in the classroom at the time—how I started college—how I dropped out in 1968—and how the Marines shaped me up. I always include one funny story (now; definitely not at the time) about the day my drill instructor at Parris Island choked me.
After that, I take a seat. Students need to hear what real heroes have to say. It turns out Tobias’ unit was responsible for “village stability operations” in Helmand Province, one of the most dangerous corners of a supremely dangerous land. Since he and other members of his platoon were expected to bond with locals they were allowed to grow out their beards and don Afghan clothing. Chris told us he learned Pashtun and spoke of broiling hot days and nights when temperatures dropped to 90°, which, by comparison, left you feeling you were freezing. In an area where indoor plumbing was unknown, he said he and his buddies went six months without showering.
This brought groans from his young listeners.
Eventually, the army gave each of the men three water bottles, allowed them to stab the tops with their bayonets, and “shower” with those. Chris said afterward he “felt fresh,” then had us laughing when he described going back to quarters, where he and several men had been living for weeks and realized how terrible they must have all smelled. He talked about the boredom of long days spent in backwater Afghan villages. On one occasion he and several buddies got the bright idea of building a “crossbow” out of PVC pipe and firing an “arrow” fashioned from a rifle-cleaning rod. Their design worked perfectly—and away the arrow sailed.
Then they realized: “Hey, we only have one arrow.”
Climbing to the top of a wall surrounding a compound where they were living they scanned the distance to see where the arrow had landed. Finally, they spotted it, by purest bad luck, sticking in the side of a dead goat.
Tobias and the others were deep in Taliban country, but by this point they had survived months of hazardous duty. So he asked his commander for permission to take “five packs” (or five men) out to fetch the arrow—deceased goat attached. By this time, he and the other soldiers had had several close encounters with roadside bombs and dodged plenty of enemy fire. So they were fatalistic. Instead of donning body armor they went traipsing after the arrow wearing flip flops and shorts. Tobias had us all laughing when he described the shorts the army issued, which were very short. “We called them ‘Daisy Dukes of Freedom,’” he added with a smile.
Chris kept his teen listeners interested all day, as so many of these veterans do. But he was crystal clear about the damage war can do to those who serve. Five times he was riding in convoys when they were hit by roadside bombs. One man in his unit lost both legs to such a device. On another occasion, an IED blew up directly under the MRAP in which Tobias was riding—luckily, in a vehicle designed to withstand this kind of blast. Still, the explosion blew off one of the huge tires and sent it flying like a giant hubcap in a stiff breeze. No one inside was injured—but repeated blasts and encounters with rocket-propelled grenades left Tobias, now 29, with severe hearing loss in one ear.
Certainly, there’s no glamor in fighting. Another time a young Afghan boy approached the American’s position. Tobias and others shouted in Pashtun, ordering him to stop. But he kept coming. They called on him again to stop. Something about his clothing looked wrong. So Tobias called his commander and asked permission to shoot. Given a green light he tried to wound the boy, and dropped him with a single shot. Moments later, “his suicide vest detonated and all you saw was pink mist.”
Think about that next time you thank a veteran for his or her service. Think about pink mist and what these people have gone through.
In fact, Chris tells us he can remember everything about that moment—from the color of the boy’s eyes to the “taste of the sand.” He regrets having to take the shot but knows he had no other good option.
And it’s that kind of story that brings reality home to hundreds of Loveland teens every single year.
Eventually, Tobias was badly injured, jumping off a wall when Taliban fire began striking all around. He landed badly, dislocated his right shoulder, tore every muscle you can tear in a shoulder, and ended up being medically retired from the army. Today he attends college on the G.I. Bill.
He also tells us about Angie, his girlfriend, also a former Loveland student, and how much her support means to him today. He admits he has frequent nightmares and says she’s learned there’s only one safe way to wake him—two quick taps to the right foot, a signal used by men in combat units. He admits he has Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and sees a therapist for help. “I had to call her last night because I wasn’t sure I could make it through the day.” He explains how crowds worry him, even crowded halls at our school, and says he’s always studying people around him, looking for signs someone might be wearing a suicide vest.
In fact, the stress Chris feels is a common theme when the veterans come to speak. They are justly proud of what they did, but you’d never hear any of them brag. Mark Jacquez tells us he joined the U. S. Army in 2004, tired of listening to those who had never been to war talk about what the U. S. military should be doing to win the war. He and Chuck and Phil spent part of the morning sitting and talking, and Chuck said at one point, in regard to the Iraqis, “Their commanders are corrupt and you can’t train the soldiers. There’s absolutely nothing you can do.” Mark readily agreed. I asked if they thought we should still be involved in fighting in the Middle East. Mark said he’d “gladly go back, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, it wouldn’t matter.”
I wondered aloud—if the guys we were trying to train weren’t anxious to fight—why would he risk his life again? Why should his younger brother Eric, who did two tours of his own in Afghanistan, going after “high value targets,” have to go again?
“Humanitarian reasons,” Jacquez replied. He’d like to help bring an end to the chaos in that part of the world.
Today, he’s married with his first child due in June.
At any rate, Mr. Fletcher always saves something special for the end of the day. All 450 students gather together in the auditorium for a few final words. Ace Gilbert, a former Marine, has been coming out to LMS every year since 2003 and we all know what a gifted speaker he can be. So Dave Fletcher gives him the last word. This year he tells the eighth graders about a friend of his, Jim Cashman, a Marine from Cleveland, killed in Vietnam in August 1969.
“We were out on an ambush one night,” Gilbert explains. “Something was bothering Cashman and I asked what was wrong. ‘If I die,’ he replied, ‘I’m gonna die this month.’ I got mad,” Ace continues. “‘If you go looking for death in a war zone you’re going to find it,’ I warned.”
That night all was quite; but a few nights later, when Gilbert was off duty and asleep, he awakened to heavy machinegun fire. It was Cashman blasting away at North Vietnamese troops sneaking up on Marine lines. What followed was a three-day firefight against 1200 NVA, the Americans badly outnumbered. One of those who was killed was Cashman, “a big guy, probably 6' 2" and 240 pounds,” Ace recalls. “He suffered a stomach wound, could see his own intestines, went into shock and died.”
Gilbert has never forgotten his friend’s last moments. “‘I want to see my Mom, I want to see my Mom,’” the young Marine kept crying.
For thousands of Loveland students who have heard these brave veterans speak over the last decade plus, that’s the last word on what Memorial Day is actually about. It’s a time to remember those who served—especially those who paid the highest price possible to safeguard all our freedoms.
I talked more about the experiences of Adams, Gilbert, Whitt and others who served in a post several years back.
I also included an entire chapter and part of another in my book. You can also read about my experiences in the Marines if you like—and how those experiences shaped my successful teaching career.
Um…I think it was successful, at least.
|Remember: When you go to war, somebody has to do all the dirty work.|
|Somewhere in Afghanistan.|
|The troops carry the full load; including the full load for our nation.|
|Somewhere in Iraq.|
|Not every veteran comes back.|