By Jim Smith
“Did you ever encounter a Viet Cong?
Do you think we should have stayed in Vietnam as long as we did?
Did you get drafted?
What were the conditions like?
Would you say the U.S. won or lost the war?”
The students at Weber Middle School in Port Washington kept coming in groups of five to ask intelligent questions and take notes May 30 in an annual program with 15 military veterans of World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War and the war in Iraq.
We vets were seated on library chairs at tables.
The kids rotated among us every 10 minutes for two hours in the morning and an hour and a half in the afternoon. I told note takers about my 1971-72 tour in Vietnam, my work as a Stars and Stripes reporter and my 2015 memoir “Heroes to the End.”
“The purpose of the day,” social studies teacher Holly Gober said, “is to make everything we’ve learned in class real. So they meet the people who went through it.”
World War II vet David Marshall, 94, an infantryman in Belgium and France in 1944-45, said, “They asked me if I was scared, and did I run into any Holocaust victims. I said ‘Yes, we liberated a camp’ and ‘Yes, I was scared. Why do you think we wore brown underwear?'”
Korea veteran Buddy Epstein, 88, slogged through snow for four months in 1951. “They asked me about the conditions, did I miss home, did I meet General MacArthur, what did I think about him wanting to use the A-bomb?… The Korean War never (officially) ended but we were treated OK. The World War II vets got parades. Vietnam vets were treated terribly. I had friends whose sons were in Vietnam and they were told to take off their uniforms the minute they got home. But those guys were heroes, too.”
I recalled enlisting to avoid being sent to Vietnam as an infantryman and being sent anyway as a clerk. After processing troops in and out for five months in Cam Ranh Bay, I worked seven months as a correspondent based in Saigon. I told them about living in a hotel, wearing civilian clothes and long hair, having an air-conditioned station wagon, and being able to use helicopters as taxis to fly from Can Tho in the Delta to Dong Ha near the DMZ – to write stories on American troops.
I told them about the smell of dead VC trapped in concertina wire after a night assault on a South Vietnamese Army fire base in which a friend of mine was killed. I described being able to watch a B-52 strike go in a mile away from the safety of a swimming pool at a base camp, and being lucky enough to escape two rocket attacks without a scratch. But I told them how I put my uniform in a closet for four decades, blending back into society and a job as a Newsday sports reporter and editor.
I told them how my wife and I worshipped with the Quakers for a while, how I joined Veterans for Peace (which disavows all war) and how I think our military should be used for humanitarian purposes. I told them how I’ve been volunteering for 13 years with United Veterans Beacon House, a nonprofit that houses homeless veterans, and donated my book proceeds to it. I mentioned that it took 45 years before I joined Port Washington VFW Post 1819, where I am adjutant.
I circulated among the other presenters. Stan Nadel, 86, a Korean War vet, told the kids about shrapnel wounds in his legs and arm suffered when he tripped a mine walking point.
Cliff Cotton, 55, who did two tours in Iraq, spoke about body armor, strategy, topography and the history of the country. Maria Salazar, a Marine veteran of Iraq, used her cell phone to show photos of truck convoys such as those she guided through burning oil fields.
When Army veteran Carl Lalena was asked what the most difficult part of serving in Vietnam was, he told the kids, “Just being there. You’re 12,000 miles away, you can be killed any time. You’re walking in a rice paddy. It’s either 95 degrees or there’s a monsoon…”
Vietnam vet Bruce Darling said: “Nobody wins in a war; everybody loses.”
The Memorial Day parade was a huge success. More than 1,000 people lined the route from Campus Drive down Port Washington Boulevard and Main Street to Sunset Park for ceremonies at the band shell, where the crowd was about 350.
I marched behind the colors with other vets, with help from spiffy cadence caller Rick Morales, 51, in crisp Army fatigues and spit-shined boots. We were joined by members of American Legion Post 509, the Port Washington Police and volunteer firefighters and their vehicles, the Sons of Italy, Knights of Columbus, Jewish War Veterans, Boy Scouts and other community organizations.
Salazar was our post grand marshal. The legion’s grand marshal was Army veteran Arnold Klein. Bob Breslin led us in singing and the Schreiber High band played “The Star Spangled Banner,” “America the Beautiful” and “God Bless America.”
The legion’s Jim Ansel, speaking in memory of those killed in action, said, “Freedom and security do not come cheaply. They have a price… We remember them, we honor them, not for their sakes alone but for ourselves. They gave their tomorrow for our today.”