Monday, May 30, 2016

The Veterans Come to Loveland Middle School

Last week, students at Loveland Middle School spent time 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.

(And might I note up front: this day has nothing to do with standardized tests and everything to do with true learning.)

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 go to war, it seems students, teachers, administrators and the people, generally, should have a clear idea what that entails.

Every year a dozen or more veterans arrive to tell their moving stories. 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 comes to tell listeners (too young to remember Saddam Hussein) what it was like to fly an F-16 in combat. The most recent group also included Joe Jeffcoat, father of four Loveland students, a man badly wounded when a rocket propelled grenade destroyed his position in Iraq. 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. So was Bill Mansfield, who helped mop up the last Nazis in Europe when he was a young soldier with the United States Army.


I come because I helped set up the first visits and I’m a veteran, too—but certainly not one of the heroes. 

I was a clerk in a Marine supply unit during the Vietnam War and never got closer to combat 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 paperwork, most of the speakers dodged (or tried to dodge) enemy fire. 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 in training, was also present. “I begged my first sergeant to be allowed to go,” he told an audience of young people during one recent session. “I said I’d do anything, computer work. Anything! Just let me go.”

Request denied.

The man who has run the program for eight years is Dave Fletcher, also a veteran, a graduate of the U. S. Military Academy, now a hard-working classroom teacher. And this year he put together a superb slate of speakers: including 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 went more than well. 

By coincidence, Tobias was sitting in my history class on 9/11. So I brought along a yearbook and when I listened to him speak I passed it round and let this year’s eighth graders see what he 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, myself, for fourteen years, and every time I come away feeling I’ve just been through one of the most important days I’ve ever spent in education.

The speakers help young people—help all their 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, and another 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 students, Tobias proved an engaging speaker. I talked briefly, to start, telling kids I was an average student when their age, happy to finish in the bottom half of my high school graduating class. I talked about my lack of motivation at the time—how I started college—dropped out in 1968—how the Marines finally 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 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 hair and don Afghan-style clothing. Chris told us he learned Pashtun and mentioned enduring broiling hot days, followed by 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 the 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 all laughing when he described going back to quarters, where he and several men had been living for weeks and realizing how terrible they all must have smelled. He talked about the boredom of long days spent in Afghan villages. On one occasion he and several other soldiers hatched the 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 that surrounded the compound where they were then living they scanned the distance to see where the arrow might have landed. Finally, they spotted it, several hundred yards out, by purest bad luck, sticking in the side of a now thoroughly dead goat.

Tobias and his unit were deep in Taliban country, but by this point the men had survived months of hazardous duty. So he asked his commander for permission to take “five packs” (five men) out to fetch the arrow—deceased goat attached. By this time, they had had several close encounters with roadside bombs and repeatedly come under 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 again when he described the shorts the army issued, which were very short. 

“We called them ‘Daisy Dukes of Freedom,’” he smiled.

Chris kept his listeners interested all day, as so many of these veterans always 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. On another occasion, an IED blew up directly under the MRAP in which Tobias was riding—luckily, in a vehicle designed to withstand just such a 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, when you listen to such men talk, you learn there’s no glamour in fighting. On anothe occasion a young Afghan boy approached the American position. Tobias and others shouted in Pashtun, ordering him to stop. He kept coming. They called on him again to stop. Something about his clothing looked wrong. Tobias called his commander and asked permission to shoot. Given the green light he tried to wound the boy, and did, 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 veterans go 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 good option. And it’s that kind of story that brings reality home to hundreds of Loveland teens every year.

Eventually, Tobias was badly injured, jumping off a wall when Taliban fire began striking too close. He landed badly, dislocated his right shoulder, tore about 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 his audience about Angie, his girlfriend, 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 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 says crowds worry him, even crowded halls at the 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 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 military should be doing. He and Chuck and Phil spent part of the morning just sitting together and talking. 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 agreed. I asked if they thought we should still be involved 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 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.

At any rate, Mr. Fletcher always has something special planned for the end of the day. All 450 students gather in the auditorium for a few final words. Ace Gilbert, a former Marine, has been coming out to LMS every year since 2003 and he has always been a gifted speaker. So Dave gives him the final word. This year he told the eighth graders about his friend, Jim Cashman, a Marine from Cleveland, who was killed in Vietnam in August 1969.

“We were out on an ambush one night,” Gilbert explained. “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 continued. “‘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 machine gun 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 killed was Cashman, “a big guy, probably 6' 2" and 240 pounds,” Ace recalled. “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 veterans speak over the last decade and more, that’s the last word on what Memorial Day is really about. It’s a time to remember those who served—especially those who paid the highest price possible to safeguard our freedom.


I  discussed the the experiences of Adams, Gilbert, Whitt and others who served in a previous post on my blog.

I also included an entire chapter and part of another in my book, Two Legs Suffice. 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.

(As most of my readers know, I am adamantly opposed to the insane focus on standardized testing that has warped American education today.)

Remember: When you go to war, somebody has to do all the dirty work.

Somewhere in Afghanistan.

Somewhere in Iraq.

Not every veteran comes back.


  1. This event was particularly touching to my 8th grade son this year as they had just returned from their DC trip days prior. Before he left on his trip he had told me one of his goals was to thank every veteran he saw in DC, and it sounds like he and his friends did just that. So, to come back and have this event to attend at school was very timely. He came home from it telling me he wants to add West Point to his list of potential colleges. So, I thank you for beginning this program so many years ago, it sure made an impact on my son!

    1. I'm glad he enjoyed it. Dave Fletcher works hard to set it all up; and I know over the years the veterans have told me how much they enjoy it. Several of them never talked much about their experiences before.