Veterans' Memories Will Live Forever

by Myra Saturen
October 08, 2013

Northampton Community College's (NCC) involvement with veterans goes back to the College's beginnings, in 1967. NCC's first president, Richard Richardson, was a veteran of the Marine Corps. He made the campus friendly to returning veterans, a tradition carried on by the present Band of Brothers club, a group of veterans who provide mutual support for each other and as a College mission to provide veterans with a sound education and supportive services.

Thanks to NCC's Veterans Archive: Veterans Tell Their Stories, some of these local veterans' stories are being preserved through videotaped oral histories. The ongoing project started a year ago, an idea of Planned and Major Gifts Officer Sharon Zondag. Professor of History Dr. Michael McGovern has been conducting interviews, presenting the films and providing historical perspective. Professor of Communications, Donna Acerra and her students do the videotaping and editing. Veterans from all eras, starting with World War II, are sharing their wartime experiences.

On October 8, excerpts from some of these videos were shared as part of NCC's year-long exploration of the experiences of U.S. veterans from 1946 to the present. Some of these veterans were present in the audience.

"Oral histories are a memory of humanity," said McGovern. "Our knowledge and information about history rely on memory and their documentation." He noted that as generations pass away, the integrity of their memories can only be preserved by recording their words.

Introducing the veterans shown in the clips, McGovern said that they all had characteristics in common-their service, the impact of their service on their families, and their experiences of the social and cultural currents of the times in which they served. "They all stood up and did their duty," he said, adding that the work they did was often highly dangerous.

George Whitehouse, the first of whose oral histories was shown, is a veteran of the Army Air Corps who served in World War II. His two sons are Vietnam veterans. In 1942 Whitehouse declined a deferment for doing essential war work in metallurgy at Bethlehem Steel to instead enlist in the military. His task was to fly a B26 bomber as a flight engineer testing the bomber's effectiveness. As part of his job, he had to tow the plane, a target in line of trainees firing live ammunition, an extremely perilous assignment. After his return home, he saw the need for community colleges, institutions that could help veterans translate skills acquired in the military to occupations in the civilian world. A retired auditor for the IRS, he has been a steadfast supporter of NCC ever since.

Capt. John MarksJohn Marks, a retired career Coast Guard officer who attained the rank of full captain, enlisted in 1964 at age 17, fascinated with Coast Guard cutters. His memories are vivid, including participation in the Tall Ships exhibition in New York's harbor for the U.S. Bicentennial. A traumatic memory took hold when he escorted two Polish officers on a tour of the Pentagon. They were close to the point of impact when the terrorists' plane struck on Sept. 11, 2001. Struggling through smoke, he led the men as they crawled to safety, then administered first aid. A planned retirement in 2006 turned out to be anything but, with calls back to duty on two occasions. Marks has long been impressed with NCC and is a donor to the NCC Tribute Garden.

Stephen Repash is an NCC alumnus, vice chair and incoming chair of the Alumni Association. An ironworker at Bethlehem Steel after high school, he became drafted through the prevailing lottery system, in which he drew a low number-a "given" that he'd be drafted. For the next eighteen months, he found himself at a weather station in Panama, whose climate similarities to Vietnam made it a good place to study wind speeds, sky conditions, temperature. The base even had a zoo with animals like those found in Vietnam-so that officers in training could become familiar with Vietnamese fauna. Repash, who trained in meteorology while in the service, went on to earn an associate degree in environmental science at NCC. His return to school was not all sweet, however. Returning from a singularly unpopular war, he faced scorn from some.

Attorney Dennis Feeley served in the Navy during the Vietnam War, in which he was a petty officer, second class by the age of 21. Although he had a student deferment while he was in college, he dropped out to care for his father when his father became ill. Reclassified, and feeling it was his duty, he enlisted for four years in the Navy. There, he trained on an air craft carrier, also learning electronics. After his discharge, he arrived at the airport shocked to see protesters hoisting posters toward him. After enrolling at NCC, he started a veterans' club to help other Vietnam veterans cope with their return and to readjust to civilian life.

Frank Buchvalt encountered the same disdain as did Feeley and many other Vietnam vets. On the flight home from Vietnam, stewardesses refused to serve him. He had enlisted in the Army at age 18, with a passion to fly. As part of his duties, he had the dangerous assignment of flying into fire zones. After his return home, he enrolled at NCC. He is a former trustee and project manager at the College.

•· McGovern framed the veterans' reminiscences with historical context, explaining the draft lottery and student deferments during the Vietnam War and commenting on the rift that developed between middle class youths able to afford college and avoid the draft and poorer young people who could not.

The series "Off to War and Coming Home" is a part of NCC's yearlong programming made possible by the College's National Endowment for the Humanities Challenge Grant. Upcoming events include:

Watch the veterans' videotaped oral histories on YouTube.

•· Oct. 10, Veterans Tell Their Stories. Monroe Campus, 12:30 - 1:30 p.m.

•· Nov. 12, Veteran's Day Observance, Veteran's Plaza, Tribute Garden, 11:30 a.m. - 12:15 p.m.

•· Nov. 13, Returning Veterans of the Civil War. Presentation by Dr. Brian Alnutt, assistant professor of history, Clymer Library, 115 Firehouse Rd., Pocono Pines, 10:15 a.m.

•· Nov. 14. A Morning with NCC Student Veterans panel discussion, College Center, Room 146, 11:15 - 12:15 p.m.

•· Nov. 14, Off to War and Coming Home. NCC Veterans Panel Discussion, Lipkin theatre, 7:00 p.m.

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