Four area veterans helped South Lakes kick off the high school’s week-long salute to America’s men and women in uniform. Representing World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War, Army veterans Charles Nackos, Jack Murray and Chauncey Reed and former Marine Maudie Price, spoke with about 100 South Lakes High School students Monday afternoon about sacrifice, patriotism and freedom.
Robert Smith, a South Lakes teacher and Vietnam veteran, organized the 90-minute talk to "recognize and celebrate" the nation’s war heroes. "We are able to enjoy the freedoms that we sometimes take for granted today, because of the sacrifices of men and women soldiers," Smith told the students. "I’m a teacher because of my experience in the military. I joined the Army to pay for school."
With the help of some of her veteran teachers, Principal Realista "Rely" Rodriguez has eschewed traditional Veterans Day remembrances for a week-long recognition of American soldiers. Monday's panel meeting was one of the first events featuring guest speakers, military recruiters and a display of U.S. Army military vehicles. "I think it is very important that our kids get to hear from these vets," Rodriquez said. "They mean so much to our country. They have given us so much and we all have a lot to learn from them."
EACH OF THE FOUR panelists gave a brief description of their respective wars, before answering questions from the students. Nackos, who is the commander of American Legion Post 180 in Vienna, called Hitler’s decision to declare war on the United States after Pearl Harbor, "the biggest mistake they ever made," and he praised President Truman’s decision to drop the Atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, saying it "saved at least one million more lives."
Nackos also reflected on the differences of World War II and the ensuing conflicts in Korea and more specifically, Vietnam. "World War II was a popular war. Once we got in, we had everyone in the country behind us," Nackos said. "There were no protesters in the streets. There was a sense, with food stamp rationing and cars not being built, that we were all in this together."
Murray, a veteran of Korea, spoke about the historical significance of the conflict that continues to make the modern Korean peninsula a source of worry today. "Fifty years later, North Korea still has a communist government and it is still a very difficult situation with North Korea saying they have nuclear weapons and threatening to use them," Murray said, calling the war an ‘honorable venture.’ "We did our part, now hopefully, through diplomatic circles we will solve the current crisis."
Last year, Murray returned to South Korea, when he, and a group of other vets, toured the capital of Seoul. He liked what he saw, he said. "It almost looks like New York City," he told the students. "The Korean people took advantage of the freedom that we gave them. We are very grateful for that."
Retired Sgt. Major Reed Reed, who spent 30 years in the army from 1956 until 1986, discussed his two tours of duty in Vietnam, and how he dealt with the negative reactions of many Americans to the war when he returned. "I thought it was a noble job, obviously, a lot of people disagreed with that," he said. "What you have to remember is that you may disagree, but I will fight for your right to disagree."
Smith, the South Lakes teacher and a fellow Vietnam vet, said he is watching the events in Iraq closely. "I remember the days of body bags," he said. "After my tour in Vietnam, I spent six months in Germany and was responsible for getting dead bodies of soldiers back to America, including one of my good friends."
FOR ABOUT AN HOUR, students asked the veterans questions ranging from how the military changed them to whether or not they ever felt scared.
Speaking to a room of 16, 17 and 18 year olds, Nackos, the Wilson, N.C.-native, described how frustrated he was that he had to wait one year before graduating from N.C. State University before being allowed to enlist for World War II. Military officials told him that they would need civil engineers once the war was over and they insisted he finish his degree. Unlike in Vietnam, two decades later, there were very few "draft dodgers," Nackos said. "Nobody complained and those that tried to flee weren’t real popular. I wanted to go in right away. We were all united," said Nackos, who lost between 50 and 100 friends to the war. "On the day of graduation, I received my papers from the military. It was the best day of my life."
Price of Springfield, the panel’s lone female and only Marine, talked with the students about being a women in the military, at a time when there weren’t a lot of females enlisting. The students seemed to especially like Smith’s tales of boot camp in South Carolina. Smith credited her time in the service with making her a stronger person and allowing her to survive 20 plus years at the phone company. "The military made things a lot more real to me. Things get a lot easier after that experience," she said. "You get ashamed not to make it."
Each of the speakers talked about the important role their military careers played in becoming the person that they are today. "The training was very demanding," said Reed, in response to a question by senior Sean Smith, 17. "I could do things that I didn’t know I could do before. After what we went through, you do feel like you can accomplish anything. They would not allow us to quit…That’s your team and that bond lasts your whole life."
Quitting wasn’t an option, Reed said, but fear was. "Anyone who is not afraid while in battle, I would stay away from that person," he said. "Fear is a good thing to have."
But fear was not limited to the soldiers, Reed said. "I worried my family so bad when I was over there that they wrote me some of the most depressing letters," he admitted. "It was so bad that during my second tour, I told them I was stationed in Thailand."
AND DESPITE the occasional depressing letter from home, "mail call" provided many happy memories for soldiers, Murray said. "My favorite time in the service was mail call," he recalled. "They would stand up on a jeep and call out your name. It was so neat to get something, anything, from home. Yet, it was so depressing when nobody sent you anything."
Murray encouraged the students to send letters to any service men or women they may know who are serving the country today. "It’s a thrill for them," he said.
To the delight of many students, Murray talked about his own less-than-stellar educational background, and the role his military service played in shaping his character. "I was the worst student in the class. I was not going anywhere," said Murray, who graduated from law school after Korea. "After a few years in the service, I grew up. Don’t give up on yourself, even if everyone else seemingly has."
Sean Smith, a senior on the Seahawks football team, is considering a career in the military after graduation. Smith said he enjoyed hearing about the veterans' tales of their enlisted days. "They have lived the experiences that I am thinking about doing," he said, after the talk. "I’m hard headed and I haven’t been the best student, but I want to try and be a better human being. I want to be more of a man and I think the military could help me."
When one of Smith’s classmates asked if veterans missed the military, the panelists, to a person, all said they missed the camaraderie. Nackos told the students about how he was able to hide his personnel records for three months. Without them, the Army couldn’t discharge him. "I didn’t want to leave," he said.
Reed said the transition from military to civilian life can be difficult, if not traumatic. "It was definitely one of the hardest times of my life," he said.
While Murray shared the fondness for the military, he reminded the students that not all is easy. "Looking back, you definitely forget about all the bad times."