From veterans, sober words about war for today's teens

Suburban high schoolers in Oregon talk 'duty' and 'sacrifice' with former US warriors

Lewis Rumpakis fought for the United States in Korea, but he hasn't talked about it much, especially in public, in the 48 years since.

"Most of us, when we came home, the thing was over, and it was too ugly to even talk about," he says. "So you didn't."

Now, though, Mr. Rumpakis is a guest lecturer, of sorts, at a high school on the outskirts of Portland, Ore. At the moment, he's face to face in the lunch room with a gaggle of teenagers - some of whom are thinking hard these days about whether to join the US military and the fight against terrorism.

His war story - about how his Marine division got trapped and had to fight 10 Chinese divisions to get back to the coast - is a moving but unromanticized account of hardship and sacrifice. It is a sort of Veterans Day reality check that gave students an up-close look at what it means to serve one's country in the armed forces.

More than 1,000 veterans - from World War II, Vietnam, and the Gulf War - were on hand Wednesday for what has become an annual cross-generational exchange at Milwaukie High School here. War has been on everyone's mind since Sept. 11, and this is by far the biggest "living history day" since it began in 1996, when local teacher Ken Buckles got tired of Veterans Day being just a day off from school.

This year, the project featured not only local veterans, but also the Tuskegee Airmen, the Navajo Code Talkers, and survivors from the Bataan Death March. In the veterans' accounts, events were often far messier than in the textbook versions.

"All the books skipped over the important stuff, like how it felt to be there, and how if you lagged behind or wanted water you got beat to death," says Justin Ellis, a freshman who heard a talk about the Bataan Death March. Justin says he and his friend plan to sign up for the Marines when they're older.

Spanning the generations

In a time when generations have little contact, both sides seem to appreciate this opportunity to reach across the years. In different classrooms, students hear groups from "WWII Air Corps," "Vietnam Army," "Korea Marines," and "Women in the Military." In this last class, Roberta LeReaux, steadying herself on a walker, tells how she learned to fly and then went to England in World War II to volunteer for the Air Transport Auxiliary after England lost half its fleet.

"It's definitely opened [the students'] eyes," says student Cameron Argyle. "I mean, without these guys, the world would be a lot different." But Cameron says most people his age aren't especially eager to fight in Afghanistan. He can't really imagine himself fighting, and his friend Sam says he would go only if he "absolutely had to."

The tales of valor and sacrifice seem more immediate this year, and, for the veterans, a sense of melancholy and resignation hangs in the air.

Patriotism and melancholy

"Due to the 11th," says Rumpakis, "there's more of an adhesion to the veterans, because it's leading into the same type of a scenario, like in Vietnam, where it started very small and now it's gaining momentum." He pauses, and then adds, "It's a bad situation.... If it's a war, I don't care where it is or what it is, it's bad."

In the school parking lot, a 30-foot blow-up marine towers over an information booth, and a bright red Marine Corps Humvee blasts techno music. At the table, kids fill out forms, then put on fatigues and run through an obstacle course. The air is generally festive and, except for a few German exchange students, most of the teens seem to approve of the whole day, war and all.

But inside, the talk is of duty. Most veterans here say they would do it again, but they know too well the price that will be paid.

"When they come home they're going to be different people," says Steve Spratt, who served in Vietnam. "Their friends and their families are going to be expecting the same person to come back, and that person is going to be gone forever. I hope they take away [from today] that it's not about glory, that no one wins in war."

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.