Charles Sanders, commander of the American Legion Post 803, posed a question to the group of nearly 50 students at the Mattituck High School Library: How long have they ever gone without a shower?
The room went silent.
Ray Terry, who served as a radio operator in the Marines from 1950 to 1953, provided some perspective.
“When we were on the line, we wore the same clothes usually for about 30 days,” he said. “As far as living, we lived in sleeping bags. Whether it was raining or snowing, we slept outside. There was no inside while we were in Korea.”
Mr. Sanders and Mr. Terry were among a group of six veterans who spoke to the high school students Friday morning on the eve of the Memorial Day weekend. They shared experiences ranging from the Cold War, to combat in Korea to missions in Vietnam.
Mr. Terry served in the Korean War from 1951 to 1952. He recalled some of the horrors he lived through, like when he got stuck in a punch bowl — a large, flat area in between hills where Koreans had dug caves where they could shoot.
“We were like ducks in a shooting range,” Mr. Terry recalled. “We lost so many people in about three days. All we did was take out the wounded and bring back ammunition. We didn’t even eat for several days.”
Carl Deliteris served from 1966 to 1967 as a combat engineer in the Army’s 25th Infantry Division during the Vietnam War. He described leading an infantry of about 125 soldiers with a mine detector on his third day in Vietnam. He also told students about how they provided health care to Vietnam civilians and also taught them how to deliver babies more safely.
“A large part of the service has nothing to do with facing the enemy directly,” Mr. Deliteris said. “There are a multitude of jobs to do, just like civilian life.”
He was wounded when he got shot in the head and was discharged. He suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder before it was a clinical diagnosis, and recognizes now that it has affected his life tremendously.
“I’ve been able to get great jobs and do great things, but I was always fired from them for the same reason,” Ms. Deliteris said. “They always said basically ‘You had difficulty controlling your feelings.’ ”
His PTSD is now being treated by the Veterans Association in Northport and Riverhead. He only first started getting treatment eight years ago.
“You’re providing the students with an incredible opportunity,” principal Shawn Petretti said to the panel. “You can’t read this stuff. Watching videos and so forth is not the same.”
Ron Breuer, 1st Vice Commander of the Mattituck American Legion, served in Vietnam from 1967-’68 in the Army.
“I didn’t join the Army, the Army joined me,” he said. “I finished high school, I was going to college, I was living at home, my laundry was done for me and my meals were cooked. Then one day I got a letter.”
Coming home from war was a very different experience for Vietnam veterans than soldiers coming home today.
“People were very annoyed at us. People would yell and call us names,” Mr. Breuer said, talking about coming home in his uniform. “I wound up taking my uniform and hanging it up in my closet and it’s still there.”
John Ribeiro, commander for the Mattituck American Legion, added that when he came home from Vietnam, his family and friends did not ask about the war at all and wanted to pretend it didn’t happen.
Mattituck junior Jackelynn Giron baked a cake for the panel of veterans, and students lined up to shake their hands when the presentation ended.
“I found it very informative about how they were treated after serving the Vietnam War,” Jackelynn said.
“These guys were called to serve our country and they did,” said Mr. Sanders, who’s an active member in the Army National Guard in addition to serving as a town assessor. “They’re the ones who were willing to go out and risk their lives regardless of whether you think it’s right or wrong.”
He left the students with the message of how lucky they are to live in America.