The news that Roger Muchnick -- a Staples graduate and Marine who served two tours in Afghanistan -- was killed in a Nevada mortar accident last week hit his friends hard.
This being 2013, news of the tragedy spread quickly. Facebook was a primary means of communication. First reports were that he had been injured and flown to a Reno hospital. Words of encouragement appeared on Roger's page.
He died later that day. "Rest In Peace," some said. Others recounted great times they'd had together. Many thanked him for his service to his country.
It's always difficult for young people to lose a friend. In Westport, in the 21st century, men and women in their 20s are not supposed to die. This was not the first time it's happened here -- but almost always, the causes are accidents and disease.
For members of Roger's Staples Class of 2008, losing someone to a military accident was unfathomable. That's because, in Westport in the 21st century, military service lies way outside the experience of most high school students.
Like more than 90 percent of Staples graduates, Roger went to college. At Eastern Connecticut State University, he played four years of football and lacrosse. But then he joined the Marines. He was always the risk-taking, adventurous type. Photos on his Facebook page -- Roger looking comfortable with weapons, Roger smiling in the desert -- show a service he seemed to love.
Roger's friends felt the Marines were a good fit. Some understood why he joined the military; others did not. Our two wars -- in Afghanistan and Iraq -- are being fought far beyond the consciousness of most Westport 20-somethings. (Far beyond the consciousness of most Americans, in fact.) Our all-volunteer forces have forced certain segments of the population into the military and kept nearly all others out.
It's a mindset that previous generations of Staples students and graduates would find surprising.
The Class of 1943 had 100 graduates. Ten of them -- exactly 10 percent -- did not attend commencement ceremonies that June. Stars next to their names meant they were already serving in the armed forces. The yearbook was dedicated to them.
The 88-member Class of '44 included seven more service members. That year, Staples students raised $39,500 for the War Bond Drive. Their efforts made graduation night special. So did the sudden appearance -- in full uniform -- of Airman Sebastian (Sebby) Lauterbach. He joined the class in time to march to the stage for the ceremony. That memory became even more poignant a few months later, when he was one of two members of the class killed in combat.
Twelve more graduates -- one-eighth of the 96-member Class of 1945 -- were honored with service stars in their commencement program. Many returned soon to Westport. So too did Roland Wachob -- Staples' beloved coach and physical education teacher -- who had served in Europe as a captain.
But some did not come home. Three of the four Wassell brothers -- in three separate branches -- were killed. So was Pete Gish, a Marine who died in Saipan. The news came the morning of graduation. One chair was draped in black, in his honor.
The Vietnam War had a very different -- but equally profound -- effect on Staples. The enormous peace movement that energized so many Americans engulfed high school students here. For nearly a decade there were teach-ins, protests and marches. Few facets of school life were untouched by some aspect of that faraway conflict.
But not all Staples students were opposed to the war. Every protest sparked a counter-protest. And plenty of Staples graduates marched off to combat.
Some went willingly. Others were drafted. How they ended up in Vietnam, though, became irrelevant when bullets flew. Five men -- Timothy Barmmer, Frederick Rader, Michael Paquin, Stephen Shortall and Francis Walsh -- did not make it back.
It was a tumultuous time, in America's history, and in Westport. I was a student at Staples back then. Coming of age in that era marked me profoundly. But there was plenty I did not understand at the time. I never realized, for example, that the reason we had so many bright, young male teachers was because it was a way to avoid the draft.
Growing up when I did gave me a profound distrust of the military. That feeling lasted a long time. It is only recently -- as I have gotten to know men like Assistant Principal Richard Franzis (who served in Iraq), English instructor Daniel Geraghty (a former Army Ranger), and graduates Sam Goodgame and Sean Gallagher (appointed to West Point and Annapolis, respectively) -- that I have understood and appreciated the vital role our military plays in the world.
And understood and appreciated the sacrifices of men like Roger Muchnick, who choose a path most Staples students never even consider.