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Lessons from war: veterans pass along personal war history to Bigfork students

The Missoulian • November 11, 2004 • Missoula, Montana

by Michael Jamison

Bigfork High School honors veterans with an oral history project and a Veterans Assembly. Oral histories were read for veterans Lawrence Kotecki, Don Togerson, Larry Roedel, William “Lee” Searcy, Kenneth Caverly, and Matthew Saltz. This is the fifth year of the ongoing veterans history project in Bigfork. Fifty-six oral histories have been collected.

Left: William Fratt and his grandson, David Crismore, pause with Fratt’s dog, Lero T. Hager, which he named for one of his World War II “foxhole buddies,” at Fratt’s home near Kalispell on Wednesday. Crismore, a senior at Bigfork High School, interviewed his grandfather about his service as a Marine in World War II as part of the Montana Heritage Project, which is aimed at collecting stories of Montana veterans. Fratt was one of thousands of Marines who in 1943 at the start of the Pacific campaign landed on Tarawa in one of the fiercest Marine battles ever with nearly 3,000 casualties.TOM BAUER/Missoulian

BIGFORK - When we talk about war, especially the history of war, we tend to talk about abstractions.

Tune into the nightly news, drop by a high school history class, and you’ll learn that war is about nations and economies, ideals and cosmologies, concepts like freedom and liberty and power.

The great irony, of course, is that for those directly involved, war is anything but an abstraction; rather, it is about the flesh and blood of humanity, about individual fear and friendship, loss and survival.

It is about people, one at a time.

“There is no glory in war,” said William Fratt. “Anyone who tells you different is wrong. War stories are tough to talk about, but it’s important to tell them and remember them.”

A year ago, Fratt told his story - the story of being a Marine in World War II - to his grandson, a student at Bigfork High School. It was part of the Montana Heritage Project, administered by the state Historical Society and aimed at collecting the individual stories of Montana veterans.

For five years now, Bigfork students have been interviewing veterans, compiling oral histories and recording the stories Fratt says are so important to remember. Then, on Veterans Day, the students and soldiers join for an assembly in the school gymnasium, paying tribute to veterans everywhere.

This year, the program is dedicated to Matthew Saltz, a young Bigfork soldier who became Montana’s first casualty in Iraq.

“It’s an awfully nice program,” Fratt said. “Everyone made us feel real welcome.”

Which is exactly why the program is so important and timely today.

“We have a lot of Americans serving in Iraq,” said Tom Cook, “and we need to help people get ready for their return.”

Cook is public information officer for the state Historical Society and a Marine veteran of the Vietnam War.

“There was no welcome home from Vietnam,” he said, and the lack of community support forced soldiers to “internalize their experiences and bottle it all up.”

“It’s been seething in a lot of people for a long time,” Cook said. “It’s been eating away at people for too long.”

The Heritage Project, he said, provides an outlet for the stories while at the same time teaching teenagers that war is not, in fact, an abstraction.

“The students are 17,” said Bigfork teacher Mary Sullivan. “That’s the same age many of these veterans were when they left for war. These kids are thinking about Iraq. They’re thinking about a draft. The questions they’re asking the veterans seem closer to home than ever.”

And it doesn’t get much closer to home than to meet neighbors who have been there.

“They get to see the individual,” said Dave Bermel, a Marine who fought in Vietnam and participated in the Bigfork program last year. “They hear about the experiences firsthand, and some of them are pretty hairy. I think the kids become aware of what people are willing to do for our country. They learn that freedom isn’t cheap.”

And they learn there’s an unknown depth behind the most familiar of faces.

David Crismore is the grandson of William Fratt; he interviewed his grandpa as part of the Bigfork program.

“I have a much better understanding not just of war, but of my grandfather, too,” Crismore said. “I learned more about him than I ever had.”

But even after hearing those tales of war, young Crismore is considering joining the military.

“I have a huge love for this country,” he said. “It’s a valuable service.”

But so is working for peace, his grandfather said, and he is not alone among veterans in that belief.

Bermel, Fratt and many other veterans who have been interviewed believe the stories of war ultimately send a message about peace.

“There’s so much killing,” Bermel said. “You don’t want war if you can help it. I hope students these days hear the stories and try to think about peaceful solutions first.”

Regardless of an individual student’s political or moral beliefs about war, Sullivan said they all agree that “our veterans need and deserve respect.”

Sullivan came of age in the 1960s, she said, and those times helped form her beliefs about war. Then her mother married a high school sweetheart at age 85, a man who piloted fighter places in World War II.

Sullivan interviewed him, and although he died before the first school program, she included his story nevertheless.

Now, Sullivan said, “I’ve come away with the utmost respect for these people. The kids, too, are very impressed by the stories. It’s really interesting - no one ever talks about war in heroic terms. No one has ever called himself a hero.”

Rather, she said, the veterans have told stories about being scared, about being hurt and cold and lonely, about families back home torn apart by politics and loss.

“It’s very emotional,” said Marcella Sherfy, education director for the state Heritage Project. “It’s difficult and very complex. Telling these stories isn’t easy, and it’s not always easy to listen, either.”

But talking and listening, she said, ultimately leads to compassion and understanding, which is what it takes to create links across the generations and to ensure the welcome home Cook never received.

“I never heard one person say ‘thank you’ when I came home,” Cook said. “All it takes is someone to show a genuine interest.”

Bermel agrees.

“We’re proud of what we’ve done,” he said, “but nobody’s ever asked us about it. It feels good to be asked.”

“My grandson saw a side of grandpa he never knew,” Fratt said of the program. “It brought back some memories, some good, some bad, but it was absolutely rewarding for us both.”

Posted by Michael L Umphrey
on 11/11 at 09:36 PM
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