In 1999, Bill Jirkovsky, then the chairman of the Riverside-Brookfield High School Social Studies Department, decided that the best way to celebrate Veterans Day would be not to have a day off from school, but to invite veterans to the school to be feted at a breakfast and assembly and then to visit classrooms to discuss their experiences with students.
Eighteen years later, the Veterans Day event at RBHS is stronger than ever. About 65 veterans came to the school on Friday, Nov. 10 to mark the occasion a day early. Fifty of those veterans visited classrooms for about a half an hour to talk to students.
Doug Whiting, 68, was one of them. Whiting whose son Matt graduated from RBHS in 2007, served as a military police officer in Vietnam in late 1969 and most of 1970.
“This is my 11th year at RB for the Veterans Day presentation,” Whiting said. “They just do a wonderful job for the veterans here. The assembly in the main gym is awesome. The students here are just so welcoming.”
Whiting, who now lives in LaGrange, was candid in telling students what it felt like to be drafted at age 20 and sent to Vietnam. At time he was living in Kalamazoo, Michigan, and had a wife and young child. He was drafted because he was only taking eight hours of classes at a community college.
“I flew into Vietnam, and on our bus ride to the replacement depot we came under fire,” Whiting told the seniors in Lindsay Mynaugh’s Advanced Placement statistics class. “Our buses were not hit and fortunately we made it to the replacement depot.”
Whiting said that the replacement base came under mortar fire his first night in Vietnam.
“I come because I like to share my experiences in Vietnam,” Whiting said. “I think the story needs to be told to this generation about what we gave in Vietnam so they can have their freedoms today.”
Whiting worked as customs agents at Camp Ranh Bay, South Vietnam’s deep-water port and the largest United States base during the Vietnam War. He said he worked an eight-hour shift five days a week.
Although he was not typically in the jungle, he had some harrowing experiences, especially a time when some South Vietnam soldiers at a checkpoint almost mistakenly attacked a truck he was riding in.
He says he still deals with post-traumatic stress disorder, which he has under control because of counseling he has received from Hines Veterans Hospital.
“Vietnam is over for me, but it will always be with me,” Whiting said.
Tom Vargas earned three Purple Hearts as a combat infantryman and tanker in Vietnam. He was 19 and living on the South Side of Chicago when he was drafted. He appreciates the breakfast, the assembly, and the chance to talk to students. He comes dressed in his Army dress uniform, because he has been a member of a color guard.
“It’s great for them to do this,” Vargas said of the RBHS event. “I’ve been going here for a quite a long time. There were only like 10 vets before and now they’ve got too many people coming here. It’s great, I like it.”
Vargas likes talking to students.
“It makes me feel better, to educate them a little bit,” Vargas said. “Not to preach to them.”
Leah Armbruster worked at RBHS as study hall supervisor when the first Veterans Day Assembly was held.
She is a veteran herself, having served in the Navy as radio operator from 1961 to 1965. She was at RBHS on Nov. 10 with her husband, Ed, an Army veteran who served in Korea from 1953 to 1955.
“It shows the kids that Veterans Day is not just a day off, Armbruster said of the RBHS event. “It tells them that this is why we have Veterans Day.”
Social Studies teacher John Fields now organizes the event. Fields’ father, Richard, served in Vietnam in 1967 and 1968, giving the event extra meaning for him. He addressed students during the assembly in the gym.
“Although the conflicts and wars that have led our service men and women around the world have not always been popular, no one can deny their commitment to our country,” Fields said. “We can criticize the war, but never condemn the warrior.”
Fields also recognized the four RBHS staff members who are veterans. Paraeducator Geoff Tillitson was a Marine who served one tour of duty in Vietnam; paraeducator Brian Sanchez served in the Army form 2006 until 2013, and served in Iraq from 2008-09; and maintenance man Angel Diaz (technically an employee of Aramark working at RBHS), was Marine from 2007 until 2011 and served in both Afghanistan and Iraq.
Social Studies teacher Kevin Turk is the only RBHS teacher who is a veteran. Turk, a graduate of RBHS, served from 1992 until 2000 in the Naval Reserve and the Army National Guard.
Steve Doran of Evergreen Park served in the Navy from 1976 until 2001 as an environmental weather forecaster and now is a member of the American Veterans Motorcycle Riders Association. Doran is a critic of American foreign policy and the military.
“I like the breakfast, but I like interacting with the kids and letting them know my experience of what I did, because I am not big on the military today,” Doran said. “America is an empire that is basically starting to fall apart and I want to relay to the kids that there are other alternatives than going to the military.”
Students were moved and interested in hearing from the veterans.
“I honestly think it’s one of the best things RB does,” said senior Lilliana Dziagwa said. “I think it’s really important to let the veterans talk and share their experiences with us, because a lot of us don’t really get exposure to seeing veterans.”
Emily Graham agrees. She enjoyed hearing from the veteran that visited her class.
“It was super humbling,” Graham said. “Sometimes people build up military people to be like superhumans, and he was just talking about his buddies and how they joked around with each other, but also how they did amazing things and saw the world together.
“I feel like sometimes we highlight only the worst or only the best, and he was just living an ordinary life. It was pretty cool.”