<< The Body Politic

Learning in Mr. Clark’s class

Thursday, November 1st, 2012

Every year, students in Tom Clarke’s high school history class at Lake Central High School in St. John, Indiana, embark upon a research project to track down the families of the state’s battle casualties and learn more about those who died in service to their country. And for each of the 27 years that the project has been assigned, both students and the families they interact with come away moved by the experience.

As Michael M. Phillips recently wrote in a deeply moving account for The Wall Street Journal, “in hundreds of files jammed with letters, records, telegrams and photos, [Mr. Clark’s] classes have mapped the tides of the nation’s relationship with its wars and its dead. The World War II generation was revered. Men who served in Indochina often came home to hostility. Today, with U.S. troops gone from Iraq and packing up their gear in Afghanistan, the country’s feelings have evolved again, with a support-the-troops ethic overriding political differences over the wisdom of the conflicts.”

Mr. Clark’s project began in 1985, when one of his students launched a campaign to erect a memorial for five Lake Central High School graduates killed in Vietnam. Mr. Clark had his students interview the men’s families so the plaque could include details of their lives. The project swelled from there.

In August, Mr. Clark, 58 years old, handed out files and told his new students they had a semester to find out as much as they could about the dead servicemen. He held up a history book. “This textbook is going to say 58,142 died” in Vietnam, he told them. “Is that meaningful? No. That’s why I do this.”

Phillips recounts one such example of interaction between some of Mr. Clark’s students and a family whose son was killed in Afghanistan:

When Angie Wagner’s father, a Marine sniper, was killed in Vietnam, strangers told her she should be ashamed of him. Ms. Wagner, then just a child, learned to lie and say she didn’t know how her dad had died.

Twenty years ago, she received a call from Mr. Clark and his students, who wanted to know about her father. She remembers it as the first time anyone outside the family had said anything nice to her about her dad. Today, her own daughter, Allison, is a senior at Lake Central and taking Mr. Clark’s history course.

One evening in August, Allison Wagner, two of her classmates and Mr. Clark went to the childhood home of Staff Sgt. David Nowaczyk, determined to show the sergeant’s parents that they weren’t suffering alone. The soldier, a Lake Central graduate, was killed at age 32 on April 15 in Afghanistan.

For more than an hour, they sat in the living room, under Sgt. Nowaczyk’s photo and Purple Heart medal, and asked Andrew and Patti Nowaczyk about their son. What was he like? How did he die? How has his death affected the family?

“He’s not just another name to us,” Ms. Wagner told them.

“Thank you,” said Mr. Nowaczyk, a 57-year-old oil-company maintenance supervisor.

The 17-year-old girls—Ms. Wagner, junior Sarah Harnish and senior Natalia Ruiz—heard about the ups and downs of grief still fresh. They heard about the comfort provided by friends and neighbors who sympathized with the Nowaczyks’ loss and respected their son for his sacrifice. […]

In 2005, [Nowaczyk] joined up, breaking the news to his mother at a restaurant so she wouldn’t cry. After his first tour of Afghanistan, he met his wife, Rachel, a nurse with a young son, Conner, from a previous marriage. They had a daughter, Kiley, now 2 years old.

On his third combat tour, Sgt. Nowaczyk’s vehicle hit a buried bomb in eastern Afghanistan. Of the five men inside, he was the only one to die.

The Nowaczyks were hosting a barbecue for neighbors in Dyer, Ind., when Mr. Nowaczyk saw a uniformed soldier and a chaplain walking to the house. He apologized to his guests and ushered them out the back, before he and his wife opened the front door to face the news they knew was coming.

The Army flew the couple to the Air Force base in Dover, Del., to meet their son’s body. When they returned home, they found their street lined with hundreds of American flags. There was a heart-shaped wreath on the lawn with a photo of their son. Neighbors filled a cooler with ice and soft drinks, and kept it stocked for weeks. A stranger sent a handmade red-white-and-blue quilt.

The wake was a blur. “You want to go hide,” Mr. Nowaczyk told the girls. “You want to go vomit. But you have to greet everybody.”

At first, they thought they didn’t want the attention. The Nowaczyks soon realized the outpouring of support meant their son wouldn’t soon be forgotten. […]

“We carry a big black cloud over our heads, and it rains every day,” Mr. Nowaczyk told the girls. “The fact that you came here is incredible.”

Take the time to read the rest of Phillips’s article here.