SCOTCH PLAINS/FANWOOD, NJ -- Seventh-grade students at Terrill Middle School learned about the service of five local military veterans who came to discuss their experiences as part of the school's Veterans Day observations on Monday.
The panel, organized by seventh-grade Social Studies teacher Judy Lasher, included:
- Megan Robertson, a graduate of Brunner School and Park Middle School, who spent 10 years as a Navy helicopter pilot
- Rick Decker, who explained the regimen required to become a Navy SEAL
- Danny Seib, a detective in the Union County Prosecutor's Office, who served eight months in Iraq
- Joe McCourt, a combat veteran of the Vietnam War
- Keith Masback, an Army officer who was on duty 25 years ago this week when the Berlin Wall fell.
Megan Robertson spoke first about her deployment on U.S. Navy ships in the Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf providing search and rescue support. A member of a family in which many members had served, Robertson explained that the military helped her pay for text books and college tuition at Villa Nova, where she studied engineering.
"I visited Greece and Spain and no one could top my 'What I did on summer vacation' stories, but it was really hard," explained Robertson, who now works for airplane manufacturer Boeing in Philadelphia. "The Navy's core values of honor, courage and commitment stay with us long after we are discharged. For me, being a Navy helicopter pilot was fun, rewarding, and a lot of responsibility at a young age (25)."
Rick Decker explained the intense 26 weeks of training required to become a Navy SEAL (Sea, Air, Land) team member.
"Eighty percent of the candidates quit within the first 10 weeks. Hell Week is the defining event of BUD/S (Basic Underwater Demolition) training," Decker explained. "You are cold, wet, tired and miserable."
Hell Week takes place early on – in the 3rd week of training – before the Navy makes an expensive investment in SEAL operational training. It consists of 5 1/2 days of cold, wet, brutally difficult operational training on fewer than four hours of sleep. It tests physical endurance, mental toughness, pain and cold tolerance, teamwork, attitude, and the ability to perform under high physical and mental stress, and sleep deprivation.
Detective Seib described his experiences as in the U.S. Navy's Mobile Inshore Undersea Warfare Unit (MIUWU), which provides protection of military assets in water-to-shore operations.
"We served eight-hour shifts: eight hours on, eight hours off, and then did it over again," said Seib, who explained that to him, service in the military meant "serving a higher purpose than myself."
Joe McCourt was the lone Viet Nam veteran among the guest speakers. Born in Brooklyn, he graduated from Manhattan College in 1967, "the height of the Viet Nam War. McCourt, whose father and uncles had served in World War II, said he felt an obligation to serve.
"When I was in college I had a student deferment, and upon graduation, I had draft eligible status. So I enlisted in Officer Candidate School and trained at Fort Dix in New Jersey and at Fort Benning in Georgia," said McCourt, who 24 years old by the time he got to Vietnam.
"I was an Infantry Platoon leader. If you have seen the movie Forrest Gump, I was Lt. Dan old man," McCourt explained. "Our job was to go out and engage the enemy. We had the camaraderie of going through life and death situations together. It was a life changing experience."
The final presenter was Keith Masback, who credits the military for helping to pay his tuition at Gettysburg College. A 13-year veteran, he was a U.S. Army Duty Officer in Berlin on November 9, 1989, the night that the Berlin Wall fell 25 years ago.
"I had a front row seat to history," said Masback, whose family members served in the American Revolutionary War and in the Civil War (on both sides). "My time in the Army is where I learned military intelligence -- how to operate spy satellites and monitor phone calls. I was able to translate those technical skills to the field. I also had the opportunity to work at The Pentagon."
Masback, now CEO of the U.S. Geospatial Intelligence Foundation, told the seventh graders that "Veterans Day is about saying thank you to people who have served, while Memorial Day is to remember those who gave their lives so that we can enjoy our freedoms." He also explained the importance of remembering those who gave their lives in training and about the sacrifices that the families of service men and women have to make.
"Every member of the military volunteered. Each of them has a family, someone who is worried about their safe return."
Following the presentations, the students participated in a Q&A session with the veterans. The closing question drew the most emotional answers: What was it like when you came home?
"I never personally experienced it, but many of the soldiers who returned from Vietnam were ostracized and called 'baby killers.' They were advised not to wear their uniforms in California," said Joe McCourt.
Danny Seib said: "I dropped to my knees and kissed the ground. Kids gave me salutes and people shook my hand in Newark Airport. My dad, who also served, was there to greet me."
"War is more real to people after 9/11. It was brought home to us here. People react differently than they did years ago. They appreciate the military and their service to protect us."
Veterans Day commemorations take place in Scotch Plains at the War Memorial on the corner of Front Street and Park Ave., and in Fanwood at the Fanwood Memorial Library on Tillotson Road.