A panel of five military veterans in their 60s and 70s will deliver a strong Veterans Day message to Bedford High School history students this week: military service was central to the success and meaning they have found in life.
The five were interviewed on the Zoom platform by Ryan Doucette, a BHS senior and student representative to the School Committee. Doucette organized a similar Veterans Day program last year, only with in-person presentations.
The interviews were recorded and the video will be played in all the BHS history classes Thursday and Friday, Doucette said.
Panelists were Dr. Alonzo Chisholm, retired from the Air Force and Veterans Administration and now working as a pastor; Bill Linehan, a Navy Vietnam veteran who is the town’s veterans service officer; Jon O’Connor, who was an Air Force enlistee, served in the Navy reserve and is now commander of American Legion Post 221; Paul Purchia, an Army Vietnam veteran who has chaired the town’s Patriotic Holiday Committee since its inception; and Will Valliere, a 1974 BHS graduate who made the Army a 30-year career.
Asked how their military experience prepared them and contributed to their lives, the participants answered from different perspectives.
Chisholm, a native of South Carolina who began his education in a segregated school system, talked about his military experience as fulfilling. “We all took the same oath and that’s the one thing all veterans have in common,” he said. “That brings about the cohesiveness. We are comrades in arms. There’s no greater honor than to serve one’s country.” Chisholm, who enlisted in the Air Force and later during his 27-year career was commissioned, noted that he earned four college degrees, including his Ph.D. while serving.
Linehan said he enlisted in the Navy right out of high school, and “what I learned was being disciplined. When I went to college through the GI Bill, I was four years older than most freshmen and I had focus and discipline that helped me succeed,” not only on campus but throughout his career. He said he passes that lesson on to the younger veterans he counsels.
Purchia had a different perspective. He was drafted after graduating from Villanova University. In college, he said, “there wasn’t a wide spectrum of individuals. It was eye-opening to me in the military. I got to know people that I probably wouldn’t have known. I made great friends whom I’ve stayed in touch with.” Later he took advantage of the GI Bill to earn an MBA.
Valliere, a 1974 BHS graduate, commented that enlisting is “probably the best thing I ever have done for myself and my family. I learned that in order to get things done you had to work as a team member.” Valliere, whose 30-year career spanned the Gulf War and the invasion of Iraq, retired as a command sergeant major, one of the highest non-commissioned ranks in the Army.
O’Connor, noting that his father and uncle were Marines, enlisted after discovering as a Northeastern student that he wasn’t ready for college. “Many doors opened after that,” he said, describing how he was deployed seven times over six Air Force years, “learning languages and cultures along the way.” He said he cherished “being able to look at the world and all the opportunities that exist.”
Doucette also asked the panelists about any challenging or difficult aspects of their service. O’Connor said he “learned how to hurry up and wait. It’s an environment in which the machine moves slowly.”
“As veterans service officer, I assist veterans in filing for compensation claims because of service-connected disabilities,” said Linehan, noting that in some cases they come many years after discharge. He also noted that “my personal job in the military was crash and rescue on a carrier. It’s not a pleasure cruise. The payoff is that you served your country and you feel like a patriot. There is something to be said about that.”
Purchia recalled that during the Vietnam conflict, “people didn’t give us the respect that we as Americans and military that were sacrificing ourselves for the war effort deserved. You almost felt like an outcast when you came back.” Now it’s different, he said, as citizens “realize that people are sacrificing for all of us and the fact that they get the respect that we may not have gotten years ago. The American public has realized that you need to separate the warrior from the war.”
“I’ve been in a lot of lonely places and I was separated many times away from my family,” Chisholm said. “That’s about the only issue I can think of as a downside.” Yet he was gratified when people who remained on base took care of his family’s needs during his deployments. “There were people who took an interest in me who saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself. And that changed my whole life.”
Valliere’s initial answer elicited laughter. “Coffee is not the best in the military,” he mused. Valliere added that he serves as a transition assistance advisor for the commonwealth, working with families of active duty, National Guard, and Reserve personnel. Family separation from deployment is a drawback, he acknowledged.
Doucette asked each participant to deliver a message to himself as if he was still in high school, or to high school students today. “Pay attention. Don’t discount what is being offered,” Linehan said, adding that students should respect their teachers.
Chisholm explained that he asks three questions of a young person: “What do you want to be? When do you plan to get started? When do you expect to finish? If you can’t answer those three questions, you have no goals.” That’s where the military can be a good option, he said. “They gave me the goals.”
Military experience, O’Connor commented, “Instills in you something far greater than you are as an individual. We were responsible and accountable for various parts of a mission. When you realize you are part of the success of others and they are part of your success, the dynamics change.”
Mike Rosenberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or 781-983-1763
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