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American media too often serves a one-dimensional view of veterans, says Durham Academy English teacher Jordan Adair: that of the combat warrior. But veterans have served their country in myriad ways that haven't involved firing a weapon, and veterans' lives are filled with a variety of accomplishments, careers and interests apart from their military service.
That's exactly what DA seniors Ginya Marr and Chris Villani found at Croasdaile Village retirement community. They were there to interview Cpl. Peter DiFalco for a tribute project that's a part of Adair's Literary and Artistic Responses to War course, and it quickly became apparent that while DiFalco served his country admirably as a translator during World War II, his real passion lay elsewhere.
DiFalco came to the interview equipped with a boom box and castanets, evidence of his passion for dance.
"To limit Cpl. DiFalco's lifetime to just the two years and nine months he spent in the U.S. military would not come close to doing him justice," said Villani, speaking at a celebration of Croasdaile's World War II veterans on Sunday. Calling DiFalco "the youngest, most dashing 92-year-old man any of us have ever met," Villani explained that the nonagenarian was a ballroom and ethnic dancer of "incredible skill" who worked as a dance teacher and choreographer, officially retiring from dancing a mere three years ago.
DiFalco was one of 16 World War II veterans who were celebrated by DA students at the Croasdaile event, which is in its second year. In addition to their military service, the veterans excelled in a variety of careers — from an attorney who worked as a Supreme Court clerk on the Brown v. Board of Education case, to the founding director of N.C. School of Science and Mathematics, to a Harvard-educated physician.
As Adair pointed out at the close of the event — in which one or two students spoke about their assigned veterans' accomplishments, sacrifices, careers and interests, all based on interviews — military service takes many forms.
"One of the things that teaching this class has given me is the rich variety of experiences that veterans have, and I think we got that today in the various stories you heard," he said. "There is this perception that all veterans were in combat, and that's the image that seems to be passed down to us in books, films and photographs, but in reality it takes tens of thousands of people to support the ground troops that go in and actually fight in a combat situation. I hope that you were able to see that there are so many different ways you can support your country in the military."
DiFalco, who earned three bronze stars and four gold bars for overseas duty, was one of the veterans who served his country in a non-combat role.
"Fluent in Italian, he served as a translator and proved that a soldier does not need to see the front lines of combat to have extraordinary experiences," Marr said. For example, he was stranded at sea on a liberty boat for 35 days. And on a happier occasion, after translating for an officer before Pope Pius XII, DiFalco earned a blessing from the leader of the Catholic Church.
Seniors Maddy Samet and Rasika Rao also interviewed a veteran who didn't serve in a combat role: Tech 5 Lloyd Darter, who worked as an electrical engineer. For Darter's service, he was awarded the Good Conduct Medal, American Theater Ribbon, European African Middle Eastern Theater Ribbon and the World War II Victory Ribbon. Yet because non-combat veterans are not always celebrated at the level of their peers who did see combat, Darter didn't see his service as worthy of celebration, Samet said.
"He felt very guilty that we were giving him a tribute because he didn’t feel that he deserved it," she said after the event. "But he spent three years in the Army, and he did extraordinary work. It meant a lot to us to be able to give him a tribute."
In addition to studying war-related literature, films and photographs, the Literary and Artistic Responses to War course also features regular visits by veterans. Among this year's visitors are author Karl Marlantes, who talked (via Skype) about his experiences as an infantry platoon leader in Vietnam; Al Bonifacio, who spoke about two of his closest friends who perished in Iraq; and "Donut Dolly" Mary "Larry" Hines, who described her final days in Vietnam and the mixed feelings she had upon coming home.
For the past decade on the week of Veterans Day, Adair has invited a veteran to address the entire Upper School student body. This year's guest, who spoke on Thursday, was Lt. Col. Bernie Donato, who served in both the U.S. Navy Nurse Corps and the Air National Guard over a span of 24 years. Donato spoke vividly about her deployment to Saudi Arabia during the Gulf War, describing the day-to-day life of living with fellow soldiers overseas — from the fears she felt to the occasional boredom that crept into life spent on an isolated desert campsite.
"One of the biggest things I see is there's a huge disconnect between people who know someone in the military and people who have never met anyone in the military," Donato told the assembled students. "When you say, 'Thank you for your service,' really think about what that means."
For many students in the Literary and Artistic Responses to War course, the Croasdaile veterans tribute project was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
"They’re a generation that young people don’t normally get to talk to unless you are related to someone from World War II, which I’m not," Rao said. "It’s something that I was able to do that I wouldn’t have been able to do if I weren’t a part of this class."
Marr and Villani came away from their conversations with DiFalco with not just new knowledge of World War II, but also life lessons.
"Cpl. Falco was the first person in the 90s age who I’ve ever met in my life. When you’ve lived that many years, unintentionally, but good for us, everything you say seems to come out as a lesson," Marr said.
"He gave us so many lessons that we tried to emphasize in our speech," added Villani, "like first impressions aren’t always valid, never stop talking when you’re married."
For DiFalco, "It was a tremendous thing. There’s so little interaction between this age and that age. It’s such a good idea."
For Samet, Adair's Literary and Artistic Responses to War course has been an incredible experience.
"Every day in class, it’s really clear that Mr. Adair is really passionate about this class and this [tribute] project, and a lot of that passion has rubbed off on all of the students," she said. "We got really excited when we learned that we would get to interview veterans, and giving them a tribute is something really special. They’re not going to be around much longer."