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Veterans set example for all of us

By RAY LENARCIC

A huge shout out to our veterans. Thanks for your service to this country. To begin with, I’m not a veteran. But I am the person I am today because of them. My Uncle Bob, one of the four “Fightin” Van Slyke brothers from Little Falls, was my role model growing up. Along with several friends, the star basketball player and scholar forwent his senior year to enlist in the Army Air Corps.

Between 1944 and early 1945, he flew 41 missions as a Navigator-Bombardier in a B-26 Marauder with the 454th Bomb Squadron. At 20, 1st Lieutenant Van Slyke returned home with a Distinguished Flying Cross and Air Medal with 7 clusters pinned to his uniform. After finishing high school, he went on to graduate from St. Lawrence U., and became a coach, math teacher and high school principal in Liberty, N.Y. My cousins and I wanted to be just like our hero uncle whose inspiration motivated us all to become successes in life.

Then, in October of 1979, I met Ed Juteau, Jr. Stationed in Vietnam for a tour and a half with the Air Force, he returned home hoping to live a long, happy life with Kay and Robbie. Sadly, that dream was shattered when he learned that he had contracted a terminal case of non-Hodgkins Lymphoma. He was 31. We first met when he visited the Hill (HCCC) to address my classes on the topic of Agent Orange, the toxic defoliant dumped to the tune of over 96 million pounds on the countryside purportedly to destroy the enemy’s cover but instead killing and sickening thousands of our troops. His first words, “I was killed in Vietnam only it’s taken this long for me to die,” left us spellbound; his impact so profound that the kids and I formed Save-A-Vet, a veterans’ rights advocacy organization, and joined his Agent Orange Victims International. The late HCCC Prof. Gary Ruff and Dennis Thorp carried Ed to his final speaking engagement at Utica College in January of 1980. Fighting to the end, he passed that Feb. 3. Ed was the bravest man I’ve ever known and, along with Marine SSgt. Stash Zawtocki, inspired me to advocate on behalf of combat veterans until today.

Dennis Thorp and Ron Schoonmaker were medics in Vietnam. Den was Eddie J’s right hand man. A medic with the Rangers (First Field Forces), he saw more you know what than can be imagined.

I’ve always felt that combat medics never received the recognition they deserved. Blood, guts, death day in, day out-little wonder so many have suffered and continue to suffer from PTSD-their appeals for help too often disregarded by our Uncle Sam. After Ed’s death, he continued serving his country, active for decades with the New Hartford American Legion and presently the Regional Service Officer for the VFW. I’ll never forget April 27, 1987 when Den, and fellow combat vets Dave Davis, John Frazier, Jr. and Joe Maline, walked point along Rte. 5 with a hundred of my Veterans-Rights-Coalition students and myself as we marched 8 miles from the campus to Eastern Park in the Falls to protest cuts in the VA budget.

Like “Colonel” D., Ron Schoonmaker has been serving his country ever since he was mustered out. The medic with the Army’s 8th Medical Brigade performed his duty in a Field Hospital — sights seen there etched forever into the fabric of his mind. In addition to being a Director of the Herkimer County Hunger Coalition, he’s spearheaded the effort to place flags in Herkimer’s cemeteries around Memorial Day and presently serves as Deputy Mayor for the village of Ilion. I owe the last decade of my involvement with the Coalition to these two heroes who never failed to pick me up when I was down.

To reiterate what I wrote at the outset-a huge thank you to our veterans — many of whom, like Uncle Bob, Eddie J., and the “Docs” Dennis and Ron, continued serving their country in numerous capacities. In the process, you helped shape positively the lives of countless people, including myself. Finally, God Bless Joe Vespasiano and all of his WWII band of brothers-never have so few done so much for so many.

Ray Lenarcic is professor emeritus of history at Herkimer College and a 1965 State University of New York at Fredonia.

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