A silent fraternity, bound by battle
Vets share stories of war with students
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.
Veterans Rodney Spooner, Reg Farrington and George Swanson met with Portland High School 10th-graders last week.