High School Reunion: Vietnam and Baby Boomers

Notre Dame College Prep, Niles, Illinois

Class of 1966 — 50th high school reunion


PFC – E2 – Marine Corps – Regular

Length of service 0 years
Casualty was on Sep 25, 1967
Body was recovered Panel 27E – Line 11


PFC – E2 – Marine Corps – Regular

Length of service 0 years
His tour began on Jun 18, 1967
Casualty was on Oct 26, 1967
Body was recovered Panel 28E – Line 74

Where have all the soldiers gone,
Long time passing,
Where have all the soldiers gone,
Long time ago,
Where have all the soldiers gone,
They’ve gone to graveyards every one,
When will they ever learn?
When will they ever learn?
 –Pete Seeger/Joe Hickerson, 1955-1960
 A 50th high school class reunion in the autumn of yet another Baby Boomer presidential campaign brought poignant memories of two former classmates who perished in Vietnam.  They died only sixteen months after we had all donned our caps and gowns for that ultimate rite of passage — high school graduation.
While eighty percent or more of their classmates at this “college prep” school headed off to various campuses around the country in the fall of ’66, these two high school buddies, deferring college, headed to U.S. Marine boot camp and then to Vietnam.  They never came home. They both, according to information obtained from the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall website, died in “Quang Tri, South Vietnam,” a month apart in the fall of ’67.  One had just turned 20; the other was still a teenager at 19.
I thought little of Greg or Dennis in the subsequent decades as we pursued our busy lives.  Even living in the Washington D.C. area and periodically taking visitors to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall, I didn’t stop to think that I should look for the names of two fellow high school alumni etched on that wall.

As I prepared to return to Chicago for our class reunion on October 8th, an email from the Director of Alumni Relations suddenly jarred my memory.  The title of the email read: Greg Kasper ’66 Killed in Action honored with a street naming in his neighborhood.

The text of the message read:

If you live in the area you are encouraged to honor a good Don by attending this ceremony.  The event is taking place on Saturday September 24th at 10:00am at the corner of Birchwood and Oketo in Chicago.  Representing Notre Dame College Prep will be 1966 classmate John Priola and Notre Dame College Prep Freshman Alex Randall, two accomplished musicians playing a rendition of Taps.  God Bless Greg Kasper!  
It took almost five decades to honor this young man who gave his life in the service of his country.  But, as they say, better late than never.  And as the Baby Boomer generation will clearly recall, veterans from this controversial war did not receive the kind of warm homecoming that other veterans from other wars were given.
My re-encounter with Dennis came about suddenly as I once again roamed those corridors where I had not tread in half a century.  I participated in the school tour, passing my old haunts:  chapel, library, little theater, bookstore, cafeteria.   As I approached the gym I came upon a wall with the photos of the star athletes of “the Dons” (a reference to Spanish knights, the name used for the all-male student body.)   I called out to my sister and former soldier son, who had accompanied me, to assure that they saw the photograph of Dennis Fries.  He was naturally there as an accomplished athlete and a letterman.  (I, by contrast, viewed the football games from my position on the field at half-time as a clarinetist with the school’s marching band.)  Dennis seemed young and alive again in his framed photo with his Fabian-style Sixties haircut.
Notre Dame College Prep, the largest all-male secondary school in the State of Illinois, has about eight hundred students, half of the sixteen hundred who attended in my day.  The  tuition is now an impressive $11,450 compared to the $265 per student that my parents paid annually for my brother and me.  ( http://www.nddons.org/s/1034/start.aspx)  The Holy Cross Fathers from South Bend, Indiana left the school about a decade ago but a new agreement has been reached with the Holy Cross Brothers to return.
I told my cousin in the Chicago suburb of Park Ridge about the reunion afterward, as her brother was a graduate of the school and her mother was active in the mothers’ club.  We also spoke of the two alumni who died in Vietnam.  She then reminded me of a dark morning during her college days when a soldier knocked on an apartment door to inform her pregnant roommate that her husband had died in Vietnam.  Every Baby Boomer seems to have their own Vietnam story.  Some may even think, when contemplating the deceased from that war, “there but for the grace of God — and a high lottery number — go I.”
Recently a young male student at Johns Hopkins University asked me what “the thing” was that determined military service during the Vietnam War.  I said “the draft” and “the lottery.”  Who of our generation can forget that December 1st night in 1969 when people gathered around television sets to watch the ultimate wheel of fortune that sometimes literally determined life or death?  (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Draft_lottery_%281969%29)  Some girls in the Loyola University student union burst into tears as their boy friends drew low draft numbers.  My September 12th birth date drew number 242 and I was soon off in the Peace Corps to Korea.  Those born just two days later on September 14th drew number one, which seemed a possible death sentence, given the high casualty rates.  (http://www.calledtoservevietnam.com/blog/information-about-the-vietnam-era-draft/the-results-of-the-first-draft-lottery-dec-1-1969/)   If it seems, in retrospect, a crazy way to staff a war that’s because it was.  Within four years the military draft would be a thing of the past.
Yet the Vietnam War, the draft, and the lottery have haunted our electoral process ever since the first male Baby Boomer, Dan Quayle, emerged on the stage for national elective office in 1988.  Attention almost immediately focused, when he received the Republican nomination for Vice President, on whether he had used family political connections to win a coveted spot in the Indiana National Guard to avoid Vietnam.  (http://articles.philly.com/1988-08-18/news/26255447_1_indiana-national-guard-dan-quayle-cheap-shot)   In 1992 it would be Bill Clinton’s turn to answer questions about his own rather murky Vietnam-related efforts to avoid military service.  (http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/clinton/etc/draftletter.html)   Then there was the 2004 election with its controversial news story over whether or not then President George W. Bush had shirked his responsibilities to the Texas Air National Guard while avoiding service in Vietnam.  The ensuing imbroglio would cost veteran newsman Dan Rather his job at CBS.  (http://fortune.com/2015/10/16/truth-cbs-rather-bush/)  The 2004 election also witnessed the so-called “Swift Boat” controversy involving the Vietnam military record of Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry.
Relations between Washington and Hanoi, in the meantime, have undergone a complete transformation.  The old Cold War stereotype of Vietnam as a falling Communist domino, which was used as the rationale by old men in Washington to send young men to far-off jungles to die, has been shelved.  Vietnam is now seen by policymakers, if not as a full-blown ally, at least as a strategic and economic partner.  Former Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell, in his new book titled The Pivot: The Future of American Statecraft in Asia, explains the evolving relationship in this way:  “Vietnam is more populous than any European country and is a fast-growing economy with a promising future.  Relations between the United States and Vietnam, normalized in 1995 (with the legislative assistance of Vietnam veterans Senators John McCain and John Kerry), have long ago stepped out of the shadow of the Vietnam War.  Close ties with Vietnam are an important component of the Pivot.  Both countries joined the TPP (not ratified yet), launched the US-Vietnam Comprehensive Bilateral Partnership in 2013,  and have cooperated in security and diplomatic affairs, especially involving the South China Sea.  China’s aggressiveness in the South China Sea, including its harassment of Vietnamese vessels, island construction, and 2014 deployment of a drilling rig in disputed waters, has pushed Vietnam to deepen relations with the United States.”  Campbell was a key adviser to Hillary Clinton on Asian issues when she was Secretary of State so his observations on Vietnam (and other issues) carry great weight.
Vietnam had largely faded as a source of political controversy, with the exception of some outstanding human rights issues, until this year’s campaign season.  Barack Obama, while technically a Baby Boomer, was too young for military service in Vietnam.  And the 2008 Republican presidential candidate John McCain, despite what Mr. Trump may say, is an unimpeachable Vietnam War hero.  The lingering shadow of Vietnam returned to presidential politics again, however, when Baby Boomer Donald Trump belittled a Gold Star family.  As a result, he saw his Vietnam War era medical deferment for bone spurs on his heels, although he reportedly seemed “the picture of health”at the time, come under intense scrutiny.  (http://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/02/us/politics/donald-trump-draft-record.html)
As we finally approach the twilight of the era of the Baby Boomer presidents, controversies over military service in Vietnam should also become a thing of the past.  Then, at last, those who did make the ultimate sacrifice can truly rest in peace.  And my two old high school classmates, Greg Kasper and Dennis Fries, can perhaps give one final cheer for old Notre Dame, a place where they spent many a carefree day before their too short lives were snuffed out in Vietnam.

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