Veterans at the reunion of St. Bernadette’s reunion included Jack Starshack (top row, 5th from left); Jerry Kamper (top row, 7th from left); Tony Stazzone (3rd row, 2nd from left); David Murphy (3rd row, 3rd from right), and the writer, David McGrath (2nd row from top, far right). | Art Lynn Photography
Updated: December 11, 2012 6:04AM
Did the students who ranked highest academically in my eighth-grade class in 1963 end up earning the highest salaries?
Did the troublemakers end up in prison?
Last month, I attended the St. Bernadette’s Class of 1963 eighth-grade reunion and, disappointingly, the above questions remain unanswered. What news I could gather from the 60 classmates — from our original class of 139 students — at the Evergreen Park American Legion Hall over pizza, hamburgers and beer did not include tax returns or police reports.
But one fact did stand out: A dominant influence in our lives over the past half-century has been the U.S. military.
The first indication of this truth came when classmate Jack Starshack pulled up to the Legion Hall in his pickup truck with a yellow and green Vietnam War campaign ribbon hanging from the rear-view mirror. Drafted more than 40 years ago, Starshack was shipped to Phu Bai, where he headed the financial division, in charge of payroll for every G.I. in the country. Though never in a firefight, he still recalls the worst sound on Earth, the metallic plunk of a mortar being launched in the direction of the nearby airfield, and for the next several seconds, the hell of uncertainty as to where it would land.
Another classmate assigned to active duty in South Vietnam declined to talk about his war years, except to tell me that he has far too many friends whose names appear on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall in Washington, D.C.
A female member of our class lost a husband to the Vietnam War. That is, he survived literally and physically, but upon his return to the states he displayed all the symptoms of what today we call post-traumatic stress disorder. The conclusion of his difficult struggle back in the real world was his walking away from the family, never to be seen again.
The young woman adapted, remarried and made a wonderful, happy life for her family. But there remains a sad and dark place in her memory, revisited on occasions such as Veterans Day.
Classmate Jerry Kamper also was drafted and shipped to Vietnam, landing in the infamous 4th Battalion, 39th Infantry of Col. David Hackworth.
Because of the notoriously brutal, “tough-love” training, Hackworth’s troops became known as the most deadly and efficient fighting force in the war.
His military decorations notwithstanding, Jerry says he did nothing singularly heroic, and that he’s simply honored to have been accepted as a soldier by the rest of his comrades.
Walter McCollom, who as a young man soldiered in both the U.S. Army and Illinois National Guard, continues this day to serve the country as director of military outreach for employer support of the Guard and Reserve. The outreach is a part of the U.S. Defense Department that monitors and protects rights of men and women to retain their jobs during and after terms of military service, while also providing education and assistance for National Guard and Reserve members for find jobs.
Tony Stazzone was drafted into the Army and stationed at Camp Snow near the Demilitarized Zone of South Korea for two years. After he was discharged, he married Maureen Farley, and they raised five children in the home where Tony grew up in Evergreen Park.
Veteran Dave Murphy, whom I had known since second grade (we sat alphabetically by last name) says of the military: “It changed my entire life.”
He signed up for the Air Force in 1969 and fulfilled some of his duty in Tennessee and most of it in California, where he chose to stay to this day.
The Air Force, he says, brought him to the base near Barstow, Calif., where he met the woman he would marry, and they have two daughters.
After he was discharged in 1973, Murphy used the G.I. Bill to enroll in the Columbia School of Broadcasting, which led to a fabulous career as a rock ’n’ roll disc jockey at megastation KCBS-FM in Los Angeles through the ’80s and ’90s.
Take this partial list of stories from a single grade-school class and multiply it by hundreds of thousands of schoolrooms throughout the country, and you get the sense of how war and the military have so dominated the culture of our generation.
And as long as there is war, or the threat of war anywhere on the planet, Veterans Day must be observed each year to honor the generosity and sacrifice of our brothers and sisters. And, in my case, I want to say thanks in particular to those who were by my side on St. Bernadette’s playground 50 years ago, and who later went on to make the American dream possible for us all.
David McGrath is Professor Emeritus of English, College of DuPage, and author of “The Territory.” Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.