10-veteran panel speaks to students at Hollis Brookline High School

HOLLIS – A panel of 10 veterans from World War II up to the present spoke with students in Kimberly Coughlin’s civics classes at Hollis Brookline High School on Nov. 4.

The students prepared questions in advance and listened attentively to each soldier’s story about their experience in the military. The students wondered what led to the decision to enlist. Responses ranged from being drafted to a sense of patriotism and the right thing to do, with several who were unsure of their futures but knew they didn’t want to attend college right after graduation.

“I grew up post World War II,” said Bruce Moran, who served in the Army Special Forces during the Vietnam War. “My father was in the Navy in the Pacific, and my mother instilled in me from an early age that it was the right thing to do.”

Sgt. Maj. David Sanborn has been in the Army or the reserves for 31 years. He said he knew he wasn’t headed to college, and all his friends joined the service so he did, too. He’s seen combat in Grenada and Afghanistan. His career has brought him around the world, and he now trains cadets at West Point.

“You can make the military work for you,” he told the students. “You get to travel and get an education. If I hadn’t joined the military, I wouldn’t be the person I am today. I’ve had some injuries and some surgeries, but that’s just a part of life. (The military) is a great tool for you to grow.”

Like Sanborn, Jim Belanger was uncertain what he wanted to do after high school, but knew that as one of eight children, he couldn’t afford to go to college.

“I grew up next to an Air Force base and didn’t want to join the flyboys,” he said. “My brothers were in the Army, so I joined the Navy. They sent me to electronics school. It was the best thing that ever happened to me. They helped me find my aptitude and it molded my life.”

Belanger served during the Cuban Missile Crisis and the beginning of the Vietnam War, and founded his own electronics company, Beltronics Incorporated, after his return to civilian life. He currently serves as a state representative and as commander of the Hollis Veterans of Foreign War post.

Moran spoke about what he learned during his service and about the public’s perception of the Vietnam War.

“They think it was always confrontation with bombs flying, but they didn’t understand the other side, the psychological warfare,” he said. “We were winning the hearts and minds of the people we were serving. We built schools and orphanages. We’d get local folks still capable of working and we would teach them how to construct buildings so they didn’t fall down. We taught them how to dig wells to get fresh water, we gave them medicine and inoculations. We did a lot of things other than fighting.”

There are misperceptions about more recent conflicts as well. HBHS guidance counselor Julie Sullivan spent 11 years in the Army in Middle East during the Gulf War.

“I had the opportunity to understand the Middle Eastern conflict, which was different than just reading about it in a book,” she said. “What was most shocking is that the people on both sides were equally kind and generous to us, but they were killing each other.”

Staff Sgt. Don Hurt spoke of working at the Air Force base in Bagram, Afghanistan, which is staffed by 30,000 members of the military and civilians.

“The local nationals who work on the base are no different from us,” he said. “They love their country, love their families and they want to work. We are there to advise and support the Afghani people. What you have when you wake up, to them that is just a dream.”

Several of the veterans spoke about their combat experiences and their homecomings.

John DiClemente, of Hollis, served in the Army and was involved in the Battle of the Bulge. He described being under attack, and flinging himself on top of a young girl to save her life even though she was German. He also spoke about how soldiers used their helmets for everything from eating to bathing to protection, and the hospitality of locals who would wash their clothes.

“I didn’t have anything against these people,” he said. “Why did I have to kill them? But we did go to war and I’d rather do it over there than have it come here.”

DiClemente said he witnessed the deaths of many people, and has a profound sense of gratitude that he made it back alive.

Calvin Todd is still on active duty in the Army, but is currently back in New Hampshire while recovering from having a leg amputated. He described his experience in Afghanistan as culture shock.

“They can take something like a water bottle and do things with it,” he said. “They are very crafty. Some want modern things but they’re lucky if food will grow. They live in mud huts and sleep with animals. It’s very different from what you think of as home. I learned to respect people for what they do and to follow the rules of a Muslim country.”

When asked how the war changed him, Todd said his experience was different from that of the older veterans present.

“The Vietnam and World War II vets saw a lot of different combat,” he explained. “We weren’t traipsing through jungles or on beaches where you had to put it behind you and keep moving on. I got blown up and lost my leg more than a year ago, but I’m pretty much back to normal. The quicker I accepted things, the quicker I could put it behind me. I didn’t care that I lost my leg, I was mad that I couldn’t get to my buddy who had gotten blown up. These guys saw a lot more than I did, and it affects everyone differently.”

Retired Army Lt. Colonel Andy Seremeth served two tours in Vietnam, and is among those who faced harsh criticism and personal attacks upon returning home. He described being spat on and having people throw things at him when he was out in public in uniform. What he most wanted to impress upon the students is that veterans don’t make decisions about war.

“We have three branches of government, the legislative, judicial and executive,” he explained. “The military is not part of the three. We don’t go to war, we respond to our elected officials. We in the military respect and salute our Commander in Chief. … We are instruments of the government and don’t do things on our own. The populace forgets how we get our orders and that we don’t do it in a vacuum.”

Seremeth, who is also senior vice commander of the Hollis VFW Post, offered some statistics to the group: less than one percent of the American population is in uniform now, and less than eight percent are veterans, and that number is declining yearly, which means that 92 percent of Americans are not veterans and have no experience with the military.

“If something is wrong with the country, don’t take it out on vets,” he concluded.

“We have the luxury of living in a democracy,” said Sullivan. “It is very important that you exercise your right to vote because that is not the case everywhere.”

The panel also reminded students that Memorial Day is a somber holiday when we honor members of the military who have lost their lives. Veterans Day is a day for celebrating all those who have served their country.