During his long year in Iraq, Richard Franzis carried a bit of Staples with him.
Franzis — a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army Reserve, and also a Staples High assistant principal — wore a gift from fellow administrator Pat Micinilio around his neck. In his wallet was a letter from Latin magister Dan Sullivan.
Earlier this year, Franzis talked about the things he carried — physically and emotionally — in a presentation to Dan Geraghty’s English class. The students were reading Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, about soldiers in Vietnam. Franzis’s experience — as an intelligence officer during the peak of the surge — was a perfect tie-in.
In fact, since his return to Connecticut last July, the popular administrator has spoken about Iraq to a variety of audiences. He’s addressed the Rotary Club, Y’s Men, and 5th grade DARE classes. This week he’ll talk to Bedford 8th graders, plus his daughter’s AP English class at Fairfield Ludlowe.
He appreciates sharing experiences and perspectives listeners don’t get from TV. He discusses daily life, living conditions and — a favorite topic — the egalitarianism of today’s military. He emphasizes the importance of meritocracy — and the great contributions of female soldiers.
“It’s downplayed, but because there are no front lines in Iraq, women do a lot of things males do,” Franzis says. “They’re in the turrets, they’re highly engaged, and they’re winning medals for valor.”
In recent DARE speeches at Long Lots and Green’s Farms, Franzis tied together his leadership experiences as both a soldier and educator. He told the youngsters to “take the harder right over the easier wrong,” and to “lead by example by being out front.”
With older audiences — including high schoolers — he highlights the youth of the soldiers he led.
Showing photos of “kids” on his convoys, he says, “When you think of war you think of Tom Berenger and Willem Defoe in ‘Platoon.’ These pictures look like guys I could have suspended this morning for cutting class. They’re that young.”
Then he tells of a 19-year-old who won the Medal of Honor, for falling backward on a grenade. His sacrifice saved 4 lives.
“I don’t glorify anything,” Franzis says. “I talk about my own fears. In Iraq death can find you anywhere.”
His tour was not, he says, “glorious, or a big adventure. But it brings out the best in people.”
Staples students respond very positively. Some write letters or emails, thanking him for talking so matter-of-factly about a difficult issue.
They’re taken aback, he says, by his answer when they ask his opinion of our country’s mission in Iraq.
He tells them frankly: “I don’t know. But if you wear the uniform, you don’t have the luxury of asking questions. You do what you do for a cause that’s bigger than yourself.”
Franzis appreciates the opportunity to talk. “As long as it’s relevant and I have a message, I’ll do it,” he says. “It’s not about old war stories. It’s just about me being there, describing life.”