A silent fra­ter­nity, bound by bat­tle

Vets share sto­ries of war with stu­dents

The Middletown Press (Middletown, CT) - - FRONT PAGE - By Jeff Mill

PORT­LAND — There are an es­ti­mated 21 mil­lion vet­er­ans liv­ing in the United States — some 6.59 per­cent of the to­tal pop­u­la­tion.

Port­land High School tenth graders got the op­por­tu­nity last week to meet four of those vet­er­ans, all who have links to Port­land.

The event was the eighth an­nual Vet­er­ans Day pro­gram held as part of an ef­fort to make the stu­dents more aware of the pres­ence of vet­er­ans in the com­mu­nity as well as the mean­ing of Vet­er­ans Day. It be­gan with wel­com­ing re­marks from so­cial stud­ies teacher/coach and U.S. Navy Re­servist James Stotler, who is on a de­ploy­ment that will con­tinue into 2018.

In the pre­re­corded mes­sage, Chief Petty Of­fi­cer Stotler said he hoped the pro­gram would in­crease the stu­dents’ aware­ness of — and ap­pre­ci­a­tion for — the na­tion’s vet­er­ans. Speak­ing from an undis­closed lo­ca­tion, Stotler said, “Every veteran has stood where I stand” — on duty in ser­vice to the coun­try.

Con­se­quently, “You sit where you do be­cause a veteran stood here,” he told the stu­dents. Stotler closed his re­marks by urg­ing, “Go High­landers!” — the school’s sports team nick­name.

The pro­gram be­gan with Stotler’s wife and fel­low PHS teacher Michelle Stotler, who, she ex­plained, wanted to help stu­dents “learn from these vet­er­ans and get a bet­ter un­der­stand­ing of their ser­vice and sac­ri­fice and the im­pact of Vet­er­ans Day.”

That aware­ness may be slip­ping away.

The Pew Re­search Foun­da­tion found the 1.34 mil­lion peo­ple serv­ing in the armed forces in 2015 was just .04 per­cent of the pop­u­la­tion.

Four Viet­nam-era vet­er­ans came to meet with the stu­dents dur­ing the pro­gram: two who served in the U.S. Army, Reg Far­ring­ton and Rod­ney A. Spooner, and two sailors who served in the U.S. Navy, Ge­orge H. Swan­son and Bill Willinsky.

Willinsky is chair­man of the town’s Veteran’s Af­fairs Com­mit­tee and Far­ring­ton was his im­me­di­ate pre­de­ces­sor as chair­man. Far­ring­ton and Spooner both served in Viet­nam in the in­fantry.

In fact, they were mem­bers of the same unit: the “Golden Dragons” of the Sec­ond Bat­tal­ion 14th Reg­i­ment of the 25th In­fantry Di­vi­sion. How­ever, when the di­vi­sion ar­rived in Viet­nam on a troop­ship in 1966, Far­ring­ton and Spooner went their sep­a­rate ways.

Spooner went north with the 2/14 to Pleiku in Viet­nam’s II Corps. Far­ring­ton went south to the Mekong Delta where he served as an ad­vi­sor to an Army of Viet­nam unit.

Swan­son served on board a fast frigate dur­ing the Cuban Mis­sile Cri­sis of Oc­to­ber 1962, while Willi sky was a tor­pedo man on board the sub­ma­rine USS Skip­jack.

In pre­vi­ous as­sem­blies, the vet­er­ans gen­er­ally would re­count their ser­vice with oc­ca­sional prompt­ing from an em­cee, but for this pro­gram that for­mat was al­tered slightly.

Michelle Stotler’s col­league, so­cial stud­ies teacher Michael Ken­ney, called upon in­di­vid­ual stu­dents to come for­ward and ask pre­pared ques­tions. The vet­er­ans sat on the au­di­to­rium stage at a ta­ble cov­ered with a red-and-white checked table­cloth. A vase on the ta­ble held a sev­eral small Amer­i­can flags.

To be­gin with, they were asked how and why they chose their par­tic­u­lar branch of the mil­i­tary.

Spooner said the de­ci­sion was made for him. “I got a let­ter that said, ‘You’ve been drafted,’” he ex­plained.

Swan­son said he joined the Navy be­cause his “older brother had been Navy. I liked the uni­form, and I fig­ured it could get more girls that way,” Swan­son said.

Was ba­sic train­ing “as hard as the movies make it out to be?” he was asked.

“It was like that moun­tain that looks very tall be­fore you climb it,” Swan­son said.

And then speak­ing for his fel­low vet­er­ans, Swan­son added, “You learn a lot of things that serve you well later in life. That’s where I learned what ‘team­work’ was all about,” Spooner said, adding he has not re­mained in touch with the sol­diers with whom he served.

Far­ring­ton said he had just re­turned from a re­union with mem­bers of a he­li­copter unit he worked with in Viet­nam.

Swan­son said he be­longed to a num­ber of vet­er­ans’ or­ga­ni­za­tions and fre­quently meets for­mer ship­mates. “It’s as if not a day has passed,” he said when they get to­gether. “It’s just like, ‘Wow!’ all over again.”

Willinsky re­mained in close con­tact with a for­mer ship­mate un­til the man died last year.

“How did you stay strong and com­mit­ted dur­ing the tough mo­ments?” he was asked.

“Through train­ing and mil­i­tary dis­ci­pline,” Willinsky said. “I guess you could say you’re kind of brain­washed to fol­low or­ders,” he said, adding, “The cap­tain (of his ship) — he was my God.”

Dur­ing the times “when things got ex­cit­ing,” Far­ring­ton said he re­lied on his train­ing and his faith in his fel­low sol­diers.

Swan­son said he re­ally had no choice. “You were trained to do what had to be done. You tried to get it done to elim­i­nate the prob­lem,” he said.

Did their mil­i­tary ser­vice “change who you were as a per­son?” one asked.

“It makes you feel what you are do­ing here to­day: to con­tinue to serve your coun­try and your fel­low cit­i­zens,” Far­ring­ton said.

Al­though he was not much of a leader when he joined the Navy, Swan­son said he re­mained in the Navy Re­serves and also be­came an in­struc­tor for the Naval Sea Cadet Corps.

Spooner said his ser­vice con­vinced him that “It makes us strong when we all stick to­gether,” adding, “When you go into the ser­vice, you re­ally see what the U.S. is all about.”

“Darn it, I re­ally en­joyed it!” Swan­son said of his time in the ser­vice. “Un­cle Sam took me to a lot of places,” Swan­son said, adding, “You see why so many peo­ple want to come here.”

“I’m get­ting too old to go back in, so it’s up to you guys!” Spooner told the stu­dents.

Willinsky obliquely touched upon the cur­rent po­lit­i­cal sit­u­a­tion when he said, “All of us have a deep love for this coun­try and what it stands for. It tears me up to see what’s go­ing on. I hope you guys re­spect the coun­try and what it’s all about,” Willinsky said.

Fi­nally, the vet­er­ans were asked what Vet­er­ans Day means to them.

Swan­son said he is hum­bled when he hears sto­ries about some of the men and women who have or are serv­ing.

“It makes you proud to be an Amer­i­can,” Spooner said.

“I al­ways get a great feel­ing when I am look­ing at all the names on the town’s me­mo­rial (be­hind Town Hall) and think about all the peo­ple who did so much more than I did,” Far­ring­ton said.

To Willinsky, Vet­er­ans Day is a day of recog­ni­tion for “a silent brother­hood.”

It is a brother­hood com­posed of “Every per­son who stood and raised his right hand” and swore an oath to pro­tect and serve the coun­try. Every one of them “were will­ing to sac­ri­fice his life for this coun­try,” Willinsky said, as he asked stu­dents to re­mem­ber vet­er­ans not just Nov. 11, but every day.

The cer­e­mony con­cluded with the play­ing of “Taps.”

Michelle Stotler than asked the stu­dents to help her de­liver a spe­cial mes­sage to her hus­band by join­ing her on stage for a gi­ant group photo.

Af­ter the pic­ture was taken, a num­ber of stu­dents lin­gered to shake hands and thank the vet­er­ans for shar­ing their sto­ries and for their ser­vice.

Jeff Mill / Hearst Con­necti­cut Me­dia

Vet­er­ans Rod­ney Spooner, Reg Far­ring­ton and Ge­orge Swan­son met with Port­land High School 10th-graders last week.

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