SCOTCH PLAINS/FANWOOD, NJ -- Seventh-graders at Terrill Middle School learned about life in the military as part of the annual Veterans Day celebration organized by social studies teacher Judy Lasher. The guest speakers were invited by students:
- Rich Burke (father of Jack Burke)
- Richard St. Onge (grandfather of Nora St. Onge)
- Fred Loehfelm (grandfather of Meghan Schirm)
- Judy and Ray Mantle (grandparents of Zachary Levy)
- Raymond Nolan (grandfather of Kyle Nolan)
- Nicholas Sullivan (brother of Giovanni Massa)
- Carl Varner (father of Miles Varner)
Richard St. Onge
Mr. St. Onge served in the Army National Guard and is a Vietnam vet. He told the students that politicians underestimated the resolve of the Vietnamese.
"They outlasted us. I was blessed not to get hurt and served with a great group of soldiers," said St. Onge, who was a cook in the army. "Napoleon said, 'An army marches on its stomach'."
"I was there for 12 months. Times are difficult for the family at home. I hope some day no one will feel need to wage war," Mr. St. Onge said. "We have many problems, but still live in the best country in the world."
Mr. Nolan, a civil engineer, explained that during the Vietnam era, there was a draft and soldiers were called when needed. He became a second lieutenant in the Army Corps of Engineers and explained how he learned to build a Bailey bridge in training and was made to go below low it as vehicles crossed it (to make sure they built it right). By the time his training finished, the war was over.
"It was an important lesson," Nolan said. "What we do is essential. While we are building, the enemy is ahead and the army behind us. It was a privilege to serve. I am very proud that I served and was lucky to serve during peacetime."
Mr. Burke, who served in the Marines from 1992 to 1996, recounted that drill instructors were tough and they yelled all the time. "There were times I questioned if I made the right decision. The haircuts -- they shaved us bald, did it quick and dug the razor in," recounted Burke, who watched the Cuban military from a tower at Guantanomo Bay. "Flutter kicks in the sand pit. Push-ups. Pull-ups. I didn't serve during wartime, but I was in shape."
"I left home young and naive, and returned a strong and disciplined person," said Burke, who remains friends with many of his fellow servicemen. "Thank our veterans for right to vote. When you see a veteran, thank them."
"We just moved to Scotch Plains. This is a wonderful gesture. I don't recall any other school district honoring veterans like this," Mr. Varner began. "I spent eight years in the Marine Corps. In my early 20s, I made a decision to join a branch known for being active and tough."
"When I came home, I had a different outlook. Along the way, I learned honor discipline, and integrity," Varner said. "Often people thank me. It (serving in the Marines) made me a better person and it was an absolute pleasure."
Mr. Loehfelm, also a Marine, instructed the students: "I want you to thank everyone of your family members who served. I want you to say, 'Hoorah, Marine'."
He went on to explain that the Marine motto is Semper Fidelis ("always faithful" to country and citizens) and the importance of packing a parachute correctly.
"We stand on guard so you can be free."
Mrs. Mantle recounted that she was an operating room nurse in Baltimore. She served as a second lieutenant at Andrews Air Force Base, where injured soldiers were transported upon their return from battle. Sometimes she had to deal with the Secret Service and told the story how she told them that President Johnson would have to deplane on the Tarmac because two soldiers had to be rushed into surgery.
"It was great duty. I really enjoyed it," she said. "Andrews Air Force Base was their first stop in U.S. The wounded ones needed a lot of care. What prepared me was being an operating room nurse."
"Vietnam was difficult because there was an anti-war movement. On a train once, I was almost beaten up. We learned not to wear uniform in public," Mrs. Mantle told the students. "Today, I thank them for their service. What I learned commitment, honesty, and self-esteem. It was an experience that carried me through the rest of my life."
"My story is just beginning," said Sullivan, who just finished boot camp. "Sometimes you wonder why you are there -- until you realize how much you've changed."
"It was my dream. I wanted to do this, not only because of the veterans in my family," he explained. "I couldn't get another job when other people are sacrificing lives for everyone else's. You make a lot of friends. It builds a brotherhood that you can't get anywhere else."
"In beginning, it's really hard and bad, but halfway through something clicks. It doesn't bother you anymore," he concluded. "Some things seem pointless. You can't look at your food and have to eat with one hand, but in combat zone you can't eat and look at food."
Mr. Mantle remembered moving to Florida after the Pearl Harbor attack.
"The military was all around us. They patrolled the beach at night. At five, I learned what war was all about," said Mantle, whose grandfather served in Civil War. "We sang those songs every day. In context, every one served. We were all involved in the war effort. Today we don't have that level of engagement."
Mr. Mantle said his father gave him a rifle at 11 and that he liked to hunt squirrels and hit tin cans in a rural area.
"I learned how to identify tracks, read signs, learned about constellations. At Kent State, I went into ROTC because I thought if I go in military I want to be an officer," said Mantle, who explained that the enemy knew a wounded man is a bigger burden than a dead man.
"Blowing a guy's foot off was more effective. At Walter Reed National Military Hospital, there were men who would spend rest of life with one foot. If you volunteer you write a blank check -- you could lose your foot or your life," he said. "Freedom has been bought by vets to you. Today, we don't have draft and don't have need, but that shouldn't mean it's a choice to be ignored."
After the presentation, students had the chance to ask questions before the hour-long event concluded.
Editor's Note: Veterans Day services will begin at 11 a.m. on Friday, Nov. 11, with the laying of wreaths at the Veterans Monument at the intersection of Park Ave. and Front Street in Scotch Plains. Fanwood's annual Veterans' Day observance will take place at noon, at the Fanwood Memorial Library. Jointly sponsored by American Legion Post 209 and Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 10122, the ceremony will include speakers,the laying of memorial wreaths, and a rifle salute.