Staples is not a military campus. Recruiters don’t walk the halls, and if they did they would not see students in ROTC uniforms.
Yet our high school hardly ignores reality.
Vice principal Richard Franzis — who served as a reservist in Iraq — talks often about his experience there. Guidance counselors help students apply to the service academies, and encourage others to think about the military in lieu of college.
Then there are special events, like Dennis Mannion’s visit last week.
The Connecticut native earned a measure of fame when his photo appeared on the cover of “Dear America: Letters Home From Vietnam,” the 1987 documentary in which people like Matt Dillon, Tom Berenger and Michael J. Fox read letters written 20 years earlier by people like Dennis Mannion, his company mates, and some of the other 2.1 million Americans who fought in that long-ago-but-just-yesterday war, halfway across the world.
Dennis was invited to Staples — where he’s spoken before — by English instructor Dan Geraghty. Dan is also a former reservist. When his sophomore students (like all 10th graders) read The Things They Carried — Tim O’Brien’s harrowing, haunting and ultimately empowering tales of life in Alpha Company — he helps them examine every facet of war and peace.
They read, discuss, think about and try to make sense of concepts like honor and integrity, brutality and horror, good wars and bad wars, and everything in between.
It’s heavy stuff. But there’s nothing like hearing about war from someone who’s been there.
Dennis warned the students: “I’m not a hero. This is not glamorous. It’s not an adventure story.”
And then — for nearly 2 hours — he talked.
He described his youth: Skating through high school caring only about football and girls; somehow making it to Notre Dame, only to flunk out; enlisting in the Marines.
He arrived in Vietnam in the fall of 1967. One photo shows a young man wearing all new gear — except for his old, worn boots. To avoid blisters, Dennis explained, Marines went to a huge tent filled with coffins, and found boots that had been discarded before their dead colleagues were shipped home.
He told the students what it’s like to wear 100 pounds of gear in 105-degree heat. What he feared most: Making a mistake that would get other people killed. What it felt like to have explosive diarrhea while crammed shoulder-to-shoulder with other Marines, in the middle of a truck convoy.
There were moments of M*A*S*H-like levity: trading whiskey for a parachute, under which he and his tentmate escaped the cold and wind. A fellow Marine learned to catch dragonflies, sew their wings to his helmet, then luxuriate as the dragonfly snapped up the bugs and flies that tormented everyone else.
But those moments were overshadowed by a harsher reality. Sometimes Marines killed water buffaloes — a Vietnamese community’s prized possession — out of frustration, or sheer boredom.
Sometimes mortars landed inches away. Sometimes they killed, maimed or blinded his friends.
And sometimes Dennis fought brutal battles.
He was at Khe Sanh.
In a siege lasting nearly 3 months, 8,000 Marines faced 50,000 North Vietnamese. Dennis took shrapnel. Today — nearly 40 years later — doctors still monitor his wounds.
Yet he was lucky. Twenty-eight of his friends were killed at Khe Sanh.
Dennis finally flew home to Connecticut. His seatmate — a man in a business suit — asked where he’d been. Vietnam, he said. The man rang for a stewardess, and requested a seat as far away from Dennis as possible.
“In 1968 this country was nuts,” Dennis told the Staples students. “I can’t even describe how crazy things were.”
After briefly describing his life since then — he went to UConn, taught high school English for 30 years, and coached football — Dennis opened the floor to questions.
Someone asked what he thought about war today.
“Sending kids to fight anywhere should be the absolute last option — not the 2nd or 5th or 10th,” Dennis replied. “Afghanistan I might buy. Iraq, there’s no reason we should have gone in.”
After nearly 2 hours, Dennis was almost through. Looking back on his own life, he had a few final words.
“As you move on from here, you’ll make choices,” Dennis told his Staples audience.
“Whatever you choose, some doors will open. Others will close. But those choices are yours — and yours alone. You’ll live with them for the rest of your life.”