BRATTLEBORO—Hands, wrinkled by time and sun, cradle the tight bundle of white stars against a triangular field of blue.
The United States flag, folded like a clenched fist for more than 46 years, opens under the methodical precision of the two elder military color guards.
The guards guide four young men from Brattleboro Union High School through raising the flag that once draped the coffin of Petty Officer 3rd Class John Charles Blake.
Blake, a Navy Corpsman, died of a head wound on March 21, 1970. He was 25.
Forty-six years later, John’s brother, Stetson “Bob” Blake, whose grey hair John never lived to see, stands in front of BUHS on an unseasonably warm May morning.
Bob served in the Navy as an intelligence officer from 1961 to 1965, and was honorably discharged about the time U.S. combat troops were being sent to Vietnam. His two brothers, however, saw combat.
He admits that, today, he’s tired. The BUHS memorial service has “taken a lot” out of him.
“I’m not the only one, I know that,” Bob said.
Trained as a medic, John served on a medical evacuation crew in Vietnam, Bob said John loved medicine, adding that he is sure his brother would have entered the medical field.
Shrapnel from a 155mm gun killed John, Bob said. “Our brother Andy made it to the hospital to see John just before he died.”
According to Bob, Andy had just arrived in Vietnam on his second tour of duty with the Marines and would escort John’s coffin back to Vermont.
Bob attended the University of Vermont during the Vietnam years. He witnessed returning soldiers shunned by their fellow students. He witnessed protests against the war. He remembers families left to mourn alone.
“All these years of hurt, of not having the recognition they deserved,” Bob said of veterans and family members.
Like many of the families and friends left behind after a soldier dies, Bob said he’s had decades to come to terms with his brother’s death.
The loss hurts.
“I hope the younger generation studies history really well,” he said. “How does the saying go? ‘Those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it?’”
Lessons of war
BUHS social studies teacher Bill Holiday organized the ceremony that recognized 11 local men who died in the Vietnam War.
The youngest, Pfc. Joseph Rhuben LaRose, was 19 when he died at Quảng Tín province, May 3, 1967. The eldest, 2nd Lt. Stanley Martin Baker, 29, died at Kiến Tường province, May 20, 1967.
Almost 50 years later, on May 27, students of BUHS, some almost the age of LaRose at his death, stood on the front lawn of their school in the hot sun listening to their peers read the names of the fallen.
The event came as a sequel to a recognition dinner held last November at American Legion Post 5, in Brattleboro. Students were paired with family members who had lost someone in Vietnam.
After speaking with senior Aidan Paradis, 19, Bob Blake agreed to allow a color guard at this week’s ceremony to raise the flag that once draped his brother’s coffin.
Holiday said to the gathered crowd, “So, this morning, we take time out of our day to remember, to honor, to thank these 11 young men who were taken during the prime of their lives.”
“And we remember and honor those who were left behind to deal with the pain and now the memories of their brothers, sons, and husbands,” said Holiday.
He quoted former U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon E. Panetta: “Regrettably, for many Vietnam veterans, Americans’ recognition of the bravery and courage involved in that war came too late. Preserving our stories requires more than a place of remembrance, it requires a place of education and understanding. The lessons of war that we have learned must never be forgotten.”
As a teacher, Holiday said he feels its his responsibility to provide students with the skills to evaluate situations from multiple angles and to choose between right and wrong.
American society glorifies violence, Holiday said. “This [memorial] shows there’s a price for violence.”
Sacrifice and recognition
BUHS senior Breanna Sheehan read the names of Spc. 4 Paul Richard Dartt and Spc. 4 Darwin James Delano.
Dartt, 22, died from wounds in Quảng Trị province on Oct. 24, 1968. Delano, 21, died in Phan Rang on Nov. 26, 1968.
Sheehan said that although she didn’t grow up in a military family, speaking with the families of soldiers killed in action helped her understand the sacrifices people make.
Such sacrifices can take the shape of serving in the military, soldiers losing their lives, family members losing their loved ones, or veterans rebuilding their lives after a war, she added.
Veteran William “Bill” Fleming said he served 15 months in Vietnam in the 1st Air Cavalry Division.
“We called our helicopters ponies,” he said.
Fleming pointed to a small photocopy of what appeared to be a piece of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
In tribute to his fallen comrades in arms, Fleming said, he made a needlepoint replica of the wall, listing all the Vermonters killed in action.
The piece, which took him a couple of months to create, hangs at the Brattleboro VFW, he said.
When asked what he hoped the students learned from the day’s program, Fleming choked up.
“It’s necessary to be recognized for what I did,” he said.
The other soldiers remembered last week:
• 1st Lt. William John Bassignani, 26, who died in Quảng Ngãi province on Aug. 18, 1969
• Pvt. Fred C.H. Frappiea Jr., 20, killed in Thừa Thiên-Huế province on March 22, 1968
• 1st Lt. Howard Walker Kaiser, 25, who died in Phước Long province on Sept. 13, 1966
• Spc. 4 William Wayne O’Neil, 20, killed in Phước Long province on Jan. 21, 1970
• Petty Officer Third Class Ernest Eugene Sanville, 24, killed in Quảng Nam province on Aug. 31, 1968
• 1st Lt. Jan Alan Ulmer, who died in Tây Ninh province on April 18, 1968
Bob Blake hopes the class of 2016 “thinks long and hard about the combative commitments” its members may make.
He said that while he was a student at the University of Vermont, in the middle of the political turmoil around Vietnam, he wanted so badly to believe the war was right.
But watching history unfold left him with complex feelings to reflect upon.
“I don’t think we accomplished much in Vietnam,” he said. Or Korea. Or Iraq.
“The list goes on,” he said.
John Blake’s flag ascends the flag pole in front of the high school under the watchful eyes of the students and veterans.
A breeze catches the limp fabric and the flag sways. Creases scar the bright blocks of color.
A bugler on the high school green plays taps.
Hidden from the crowd’s sight, a second bugler echoes the first.
The tune rises above the gathering like a ghost — of what we’ve lost, of what we’ve remembered, and of what we have yet to learn.