Vet­er­ans share sto­ries of war with stu­dents

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

PORT­LAND — In an as­sem­bly that bridged two gen­er­a­tions, five mil­i­tary vet­er­ans sat down Fri­day to share their ex­pe­ri­ences with Port­land High School sopho­mores.

The pro­gram, or­ga­nized by the hus­band-and-wife team of so­cial stud­ies teach­ers Michelle and James Stotler, has be­come a Vet­er­ans Day tra­di­tion at the school.

The cou­ple has a per­sonal con­nec­tion to the mil­i­tary. James Stotler is in his 15th year as a mem­ber of the Naval Re­serve, where he serves as an in­tel­li­gence spe­cial­ist. He has twice de­ployed over­seas, in­clud­ing one year he spent in Basra, Iraq, in the af­ter­math of the U.S. in­va­sion.

On Fri­day, Stotler was one of the panel mem­bers an­swer­ing the stu­dents’ ques­tions.

Join­ing him were two Army Viet­nam vet­er­ans, both in­fantry­men; Reg Far­ring­ton, a re­tired lt. col; Rod­ney Spooner, and two sailors: Tim Casey, se­cu­rity of­fi­cer at the school, and William Willinsky, chair­man of the town’s Vet­er­ans Af­fairs Com­mit­tee.

Casey was a car­pen­ter on board the sub­ma­rine ten­der USS Ful­ton (AS-11), which ended its 51-year-ca­reer as a fixture on the New London wa­ter­front be­fore it was de­com­mis­sioned in 1991.

Willinsky was a tor­pedo man who served aboard the nu­clear-pow­ered USS Skip­jack (SSN-585) from 196264, which made him a Viet­nam-era sailor, mean­ing he was some­one who served dur­ing the Viet­nam War but not in Viet­nam.

Michelle Stotler wel­comed the vet­er­ans, call­ing them “our hon­ored guests” who rep­re­sent “all those who served in the U.S. mil­i­tary in peace and in war, in dif­fer­ent ways and in dif­fer­ent cam­paigns.” More than just hon­or­ing the five men on the panel for their ser­vice, she hoped the stu­dents would “learn from them about the spirit of Vet­er­ans Day.”

An in­tro­duc­tory video from the His­tory Chan­nel said there are cur­rently 21 mil­lion vet­er­ans (in­clud­ing 2 mil­lion women) who rep­re­sent 6.5 per­cent of the U.S. pop­u­la­tion. Ques­tions

“It’s about pa­tri­o­tism and about think­ing about those who never came home.”

William Willinsky, chair­man of the town’s Vet­er­ans Af­fairs Com­mit­tee

af­ter the screen­ing be­gan with per­haps the most log­i­cal one: “Why did you join?”

For Stotler, the an­swer was the at­tacks of 9/11. He was al­ready a teacher at the high school when three com­mer­cial jet­lin­ers were hi­jacked and used to at­tack the World Trade Cen­ter in New York and the Pen­tagon in Washington, D.C. A fourth hi­jacked plane was be­lieved to be en route to the White House when the pas­sen­gers fought to re­gain con­trol of the plane, caus­ing it to crash out­side of Pitts­burgh.

“I felt there was some­thing more that I could do,” Stotler said. He en­listed in 2003, and hopes to serve 20 years be­fore he re­tires.

Far­ring­ton was a stu­dent at the Univer­sity of Con­necti­cut when he joined the Re­serve Of­fi­cer Train­ing Corps, which meant he would be­come an of­fi­cer rather than be drafted as an en­listed man.

Spooner was drafted. He served with the 25th In­fantry Divi­sion in north­ern South Viet­nam in 1966. “It turned out pretty good,” he said.

Casey en­listed in the Navy to learn a skill — and did, as a car­pen­ter.

Willinsky had fallen in love with sub­marines af­ter see­ing the 1954 Walt Dis­ney film “20,000 Leagues Un­der the Sea,” and so, as soon as he grad­u­ated from high school in his na­tive Penn­syl­va­nia, he en­listed in the Navy.

The hard­est part of Far­ring­ton’s train­ing, he said, came 14 years af­ter he had joined. Among dozens of 18-year-olds, he was sent to parachute train­ing at 35. “It was kind of dif­fi­cult, but I man­aged,” he said.

Willinsky de­scribed boot camp as “a whole dif­fer­ent world.”

Stotler said his most sig­nif­i­cant train­ing came when he was about to de­ploy to Iraq. He would be serv­ing as a li­ai­son to a Bri­tish Army unit, and so, tech­ni­cally, he came un­der the con­trol of the U.S. Army. He was sent to an Army base for weapons train­ing.

As he qual­i­fied with an M-16 ri­fle, Stotler said the re­al­iza­tion abruptly struck him that the next time he wielded the weapon “it could be for real.”

Far­ring­ton served two tours in Viet­nam, one with a U.S Army, the other as an ad­vi­sor to an Army of the Repub­lic of Viet­nam unit. “I lived with them and fought with them and trusted them whole­heart­edly,” he said of the Viet­namese. “They were mag­nif­i­cent sol­diers,” he added.

Their ser­vice gave pan­elists the op­por­tu­nity to meet peo­ple from ev­ery cor­ner of Amer­ica as well as from any num­ber of other coun­tries. All the men said they learned the value — and re­ward — of team­work, and the dis­ci­pline they learned in the mil­i­tary af­fected their lives and work af­ter they left.

“On a sub, it was al­ways team­work, and I think it af­fects me right to this day,” Willinsky said.

“I used the skills I learned in the Navy af­ter I got out,” said Casey, who ran a home-build­ing busi­ness for 10 years.

“Be­fore I went into the Army, I just laid around the house like any reg­u­lar teenager,” Spooner said.

The train­ing and the team­work he en­coun­tered in the Army trans­formed him, he said.

Many of the pan­elists said they had re­mained in touch with friends they made in the mil­i­tary. For Far­ring­ton, though, his great­est friend, and the man who served along­side him in of­fi­cer train­ing af­fected him most pro­foundly. Chicago na­tive Capt. Thomas Michael Flat­ley went to Ger­many when Far­ring­ton was sent to Viet­nam on his first tour.

When Far­ring­ton came home, it was Flat­ley’s turn to go to Viet­nam. He, how­ever, did not re­turn home: Flat­ley was killed Dec. 8, 1967.

Stotler said he can still re­mem­ber see­ing the body of first a Bri­tish sol­dier and later a U.S Ma­rine be­ing trans­ferred out of the base in Basra. “That’s when you know it’s real, when you know this is se­ri­ous, and that some­one’s not com­ing home,” he said.

Fi­nally, the panel was asked what Vet­er­ans Day means to them.

“We’re free, and we can do what we want,” Spooner said.

For Willinsky, “It’s about pa­tri­o­tism and about think­ing about those who never came home.”

“I think of all the vet­er­ans who made the ul­ti­mate sac­ri­fice,” Casey said.

“I al­ways think of the guys who came be­fore me,” Stotler said.

This year in par­tic­u­lar, Far­ring­ton said he remembers the men who died in World War I. “What I think about is where it all started,” Far­ring­ton said.

Vet­er­ans Day in Amer­i­can be­gan as Ar­mistice Day, Nov. 11, 1918, the day World War I ended. The cen­ten­nial of that day is Sun­day.

When the as­sem­bly ended, many of the stu­dents made a point of com­ing up to the vet­er­ans to thank them both for their ser­vice and par­tic­i­pat­ing in the pro­gram.

Jeff Mill / Hearst Con­necti­cut Me­dia

Panel mem­bers, from left, James Stotler, Reg Far­ring­ton, Rod­ney Spooner, Tim Casey and William Willinsky.

William Willinsky salutes the Amer­i­can flag dur­ing the na­tional an­them at Port­land High School.

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