A DAY FOR THOSE WHO SERVED
Veterans share stories of war with students
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.
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.