MONTVILLE, NJ – Cedar Hill Elementary School in Towaco marked its 13th year hosting a special commemorative event for area veterans on Nov. 30. About 50 veterans who are relatives of students, staff and simply visitors from the township and VFW, attended. The veterans visited the classrooms to tell their stories, then were treated to a luncheon and a patriotic assembly hosted by the student-run Character Education Committee.
Montville resident Ken Hanzl, whose grandchildren attended the school, spoke in a third-grade classroom about his two years in the Army as a Specialist 4th Class. The eight- and nine-year-olds listened and asked questions as Hanzl described his year in the Vietnam War after he was drafted. He trained at Fort Dix in NJ, he said, and then in Alabama.
From there Hanzl took a troop ship with 3,000 other soldiers, and he showed the students photos of his bunk – stacked close together with other soldiers. He showed a photo of his ship going under the Golden Gate Bridge.
“It took three weeks to get to Vietnam, and while we were on the ship, everyone had a job,” he said.
Hanzl had KP duty on the ship, he said, starting at 4 a.m. and ending at 10 p.m. When the ship arrived in Vietnam, it was 100° and 100% humidity. The soldiers slept in tents and the first night, a gecko joined Hanzl’s tent-mate in his bed, he said with a laugh. Their job was to clear jungle, and “there you find a lot of animals.” A buddy found a boa constrictor – and Hanzl had a photo of that too, which brought amazed exclamations from the students. He even had a photo of himself on guard duty with an M50 machine gun, which also impressed the students.
Hanzl showed the students canned food, which preceded MREs. He said only long-range missions were given MREs, and instead, the soldiers were given small, individual cans of white bread, pound cake and peanut butter. He also showed a special Army flashlight that was waterproof and could flash red or blue. He still had the letters he had sent home and some military script. He said when packages came from home, he looked forward to receiving beans and franks.
Hanzl called his year in Vietnam “camping without the fun.”
“We had to work 12 hours a day – 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. or all night, seven days a week,” he told the students. “We had bulldozers, trucks, carpenters and electricians, which is what I was.”
Hanzl explained that the uniform he was wearing was called “dress greens,” whereas the work outfit is called “fatigues” and is camouflage.
“I see there are some Scouts here,” he said. “You have badges on your uniforms that signify things you have done; the badges on my uniform show what I’ve done.” He pointed to his uniform and explained that the badges show which war, the group, special training a soldier has learned, etc. “Each stripe [near my wrist] shows that I’ve been away for half a year,” he said. “When I see another soldier, I can tell where they’ve been and what they’ve done based on the ribbons and everything else.”
Hanzl was proud to have served, but also introspective about his experience, and chose his words carefully when explaining the concept of war to the children.
“It’s expensive to have a war; you don’t want to have wars – you want to be happy, but there are bad people and bad countries, and they do bad things to people, so you have to protect those people,” he told the students. “Sometimes you have to go and serve. I’m not happy holding a machine gun, but if you don’t want someone to attack you, you have to protect yourself. I was proud to serve my country; I was protecting people who were being attacked.”
After the veterans visited the classrooms, they were escorted to the cafeteria for a luncheon. The Character Education Committee, a group of fifth graders who spearheads such events at the school, hosted the veterans, handing out flowers and hand-made patriotic pins. Principal Michael Raj told the story of his grandparents being incarcerated in a work camp due to the Nazi invasion of Poland. When his grandparents were freed by American soldiers, his grandfather felt so deeply indebted, he ate with his American emancipator’s mess kit at every holiday for the rest of his life, Raj told the veterans. To read the entire story, which Raj also told at the 2017 Veterans Day commemoration, please click: Mess Kit. The children also read poems to the veterans.
The veterans were then escorted to the gymnasium through halls lined by red, white and blue-clad students for an assembly, at which the student choirs sang and the Character Education Committee read poems. “Taps” was played, and the children returned to their classrooms in silence to show their respect for the veterans.
Vietnam veteran Bruno Varano enjoyed the event, saying, “This is so nice, to be recognized.”
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