By Ray Lenarcic

Several writings dealing with the subject of war have had a profound, enduring impact on me. They include Tennyson’s “Charge of the Light Brigade,” Stephen Crane’s “Red Badge of Courage,” Kipling’s “The Last of the Light Brigade,” Wilfred Owens’ “Dulce et Decorum Est,” former HCCC prof Joe Ferrandino’s “Firefight,” and Walt Whitman’s “Drum Taps.”

The latter featured two poems that stir painful memories each year at this time. The first, “O Captain, My Captain,” will always be a reminder of the late Pete McAvoy. The Scottish native captained HCCC’s National Champion Men’s Soccer Team, scoring the winning goal in the team’s last three games and earning National Player of the Year honors. The personable scholar-athlete died suddenly in April 2014 and will always be for me the quintessential example of the word role model. The second poem, “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloomed,” written shortly after Lincoln’s assassination, was Whitman’s elegy to our 16th president. As he later wrote, “I find myself always reminded of the great tragedy of that day by the sight and odor of these blossoms-it never fails.”

The “floral immigrants” (imported from Europe in the mid-eighteenth century) featured in the poem’s title come in several colors, each with its own meaning. White lilacs represent purity and innocence, lavender-love and romance-and dark purple, an alternative to the color black as a symbol of mourning and the remembering of somber anniversaries. As such, the latter blossoms remind me every Memorial Day of three young men I knew personally who died because they fought in the Vietnam “War.”

Joseph Stanley “Stash” Zawtocki, Jr. was a member of the Furnace Street Gang in Little Falls. He grew up in the “Gut,” playing ball and hide and seek and raising harmless hell with the likes of the Balderston brothers, Brudie Zysk and Forbsie Carmen; whiling away hours drinking Orange Palms and slurping root beer popsicles on the stoop of the neighborhood grocery store. After graduation, he enlisted in the Marines, did a tour in ‘Nam, and even though he didn’t have to, re-upped for another stint. Shortly after arriving, he was captured by the NVA. After 684 days of captivity which included a failed escape attempt, countless beatings, and systematic starvation, his noble heart finally gave out-Christmas Eve-1969. He was 23. In August of 1985, SSgt. Zawtocki’s remains were finally returned. He rests in peace in Section 69 of Arlington Cemetery. He’ll always epitomize for me and the rest of the Gang the meaning of the word hero.

After Eddie Juteau, Jr. graduated from Frankfort-Schuyler Central, he joined up with the Air Force and was sent off to Vietnam, where he served a tour and a half. After returning home, he settled down, married Kay, and fathered his pride and joy, Robbie, presently editor of the Herkimer Times-Telegram. Just before turning 30, he was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins Lymphoma. Convinced that his cancer was caused by his exposure to Agent Orange, the dioxin-laden herbicide dumped to the tune of c.13 million gallons on the Vietnam countryside purportedly to destroy the enemy’s cover, Ed spent the last year of his life valiantly fighting for justice for himself and his band of brothers.

A spell-binding orator, his presentation at HCCC on a sun-kissed October afternoon inspired my students to form Save-A-Vet, a Vietnam veterans advocacy organization which, among other things, answered Ed’s call to action by demanding that the government admit that Orange caused a plethora of health problems for “Nam vets and their children, that VA hospitals treat them accordingly and that their disability claims be adjudicated fairly. His last speech was given at Utica College. Close friends, Army Ranger Medic Dennis Thorp and HCCC Professor G. Wayne Ruff carried him into the auditorium-he was too weak to walk, but not to talk. The bravest man I’ve ever known never lived to see the day when Agent Orange Victims International won its court case against the producers of the deadly defoliant or when Uncle Sam accepted responsibility and began compensating vets suffering from a number of dioxin-related illnesses. He passed away on February 3rd, 1980, years after he had been mortally wounded in Vietnam, and he did not die in vain.

The third victim of the war will remain unnamed in respect to his family. I first met him on Basloe Field in south Herkimer. He played slow-pitch softball with Ruff, Roy Henry, and myself on the late Donnie Miller’s iconic Herkimer Bowling Center team. He was gregarious, quick-witted, covered a lot of outfield ground, and hit with a power belying his size. His young son often attended games, both sporting red bandannas on their heads. We vividly remember him running the bases after the game, his boy following closely behind, both sliding into home in a cloud of dust. The last time I saw him, he was driving away in his red pickup-his boy by his side.

At his funeral, I heard the whispers. “How could he do that to his family?” “Things couldn’t have been that bad.” They didn’t understand. Too many people still don’t. Makes me wonder whether if, as a society, we’ll ever understand the vicissitudes of mental illness, if the active military culture will ever accept the fact that soldiers with mental problems are not cowards or misfits to be drummed out of the service diagnosed with a pre-existing condition thus disqualifying them from treatment by the VA thereby saving the government billions of dollars; that the Johnnies who come marching home with PTSD, TBI and depression deserve to be tended to with compassion and competence; that c.20 veterans killing themselves each day is NOT ACCEPTABLE!

He was an officer in the storied Green Berets, a combat vet who, a few years after returning home, began to suffer classic symptoms of PTSD; insomnia caused by the unrelenting “smothering dreams” and nightmares; bouts of irrational rage often directed against family and friends; anti-social behavior, etc. We tried to get him help at the Albany VA, but our efforts were thwarted by a system that deprived him of the long-term care he needed; a system long on the “Thorazine cure” and short on qualified counselors. He couldn’t cope with the hopelessness, interminable pain, and loneliness (wife and child left him) any longer. He too, died years after being wounded in Vietnam, but unlike Ed, he could have been saved.

In Whitman’s poem,” When Lilacs Last…,” the main character places a sprig of lilac on Lincoln’s coffin. This Memorial Day, I’ll place sprigs of dark purple lilacs before two gravestones and a monument in memory of three American warriors-one who died fighting for his country-one, who died while fighting his government-and, one who died fighting the demons within him. Each a victim of an ill-advised debacle of a conflict in a God-forsaken place called Vietnam.

Remember never to forget!