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Most Likely to Succeed — and Serve, and Sacrifice

Honoring the brave Americans who have given their lives in Iraq and Afghanistan requires more than passive acknowledgment. We must also actively defend them from ongoing attempts to disparage their service. Of the numerous smears directed against our troops, the most pernicious is that they lack the intelligence, education, or opportunities to succeed in anything else.

John Kerry’s warning that students had better work hard or “get stuck in Iraq” is just one example of elites depicting America’s men and women in uniform as downtrodden losers. Stephen King recently echoed the senator when he argued that learning to read can help a person avoid the Army. Likewise, Charlie Rangel often claims that the military is dominated by minorities and the poor, who enlist out of sheer desperation. And cartoonist Ted Rall sunk to the lowest possible level by speculating that the average IQ will soar once enough soldiers die in Iraq.

A report by Heritage Foundation scholar Tim Kane thoroughly debunks this received “wisdom.” Compared to young people in the general population, military recruits are more likely to have a high school diploma and originate from households with larger incomes. Also, the racial distribution of new recruits closely parallels that of the country as a whole. So much for the armed forces exploiting the ignorant and indigent.

Of course, statistics can go only so far in countering myths about those who protect America’s freedom. To truly dispel the fictions peddled by Kerry, King, Rangel, Rall, and others, a more personal touch is needed. And thus I turn to the remarkable servicemen from the equally remarkable institution I attended as a teenager.

Long Island’s Chaminade High School is a private, all-male, Roman Catholic academy known for its rigorous curriculum and well-dressed students (jackets and ties required). Most families that send their sons to Chaminade are middle class and above, and in a typical year more than 99% of graduates proceed to higher education. But while its alumni include a former senator and countless titans of business and industry, no group is as cherished as those who serve their nation during wartime.

Such pride is on full display in the lobby, where a plaque compiles the names of graduates lost in combat over the school’s eight decades. Fifty-five young men have joined the ranks of the Gold Star Alumni; one of them, Stephen Karopczyc (Class of ‘61), posthumously received America’s highest military award, the Medal of Honor. Each fall the student body gathers to commemorate these heroes at the Gold Star Mass.

During his final weeks as chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Peter Pace visited Chaminade to pay tribute to Guido Farinaro (Class of ‘67), whom he called the “single most influential military person in my life.” The first marine to die under Pace’s command, Farinaro left quite a mark: “As with all classes in Chaminade, the vast majority went on to college, but Guido joined the Marine Corps. When asked why, he said he was born in Italy, raised in the United States, and had the opportunity to attend this incredible school and felt the need to pay back the country before he did any more schooling.”

A new generation of alumni is carrying on Farinaro’s legacy. Chaminade’s website lists scores of graduates now serving in the armed forces, many on the front lines in Iraq and Afghanistan. Three have been killed attempting to bring security and stability to the Iraqi people. Their stories say much about the type of American who puts on the uniform, picks up a rifle, and performs tasks that few of us could truly comprehend.

Ronald Winchester (Class of ‘97) and Michael LiCalzi (Class of ‘00) followed similar trajectories. Each excelled in academics and athletics at Chaminade High School and beyond. Each graduated from the United States Naval Academy as a Marine Corps lieutenant. And, sadly, each lost his life in Iraq’s once-tumultuous al-Anbar province — Winchester on September 3, 2004, and LiCalzi on May 11, 2006.

James Regan (Class of ‘98) took a different path. He attended Duke, earning a degree in economics and starring on the lacrosse team — yes, that lacrosse team. A law school scholarship and a lucrative job offer awaited him, but he had a higher calling. He enlisted in February 2004 on his way to qualifying as an Army Ranger. His fiancée Mary recalled his motives: “He said, ‘If I don’t do it, then who will do it?’” After multiple tours in both Afghanistan and Iraq, Regan met a tragic end on February 9, 2007. Three months later, on Memorial Day, Mary’s graveside vigil at Arlington National Cemetery would become one of the iconic images from the home front.

Regan, like so many from his high school, was deeply affected by 9/11. That morning, its prominence in the business world condemned the Chaminade community to unspeakable pain. According to school president Rev. James Williams, fifteen alumni and the fathers of four then-current students were killed at the World Trade Center. The list of graduates’ deceased family members stretched into the dozens, giving flesh to Mayor Giuliani’s chilling remark about anticipated casualties: “more than any of us can bear.”

But even in the aftermath of that darkest of days, a Chaminade man’s service and sacrifice found the spotlight. President Bush addressed Congress on September 20, 2001, pledging to never forget the horrors that had just befallen America. To underscore his point, he lifted the badge of George Howard (Class of ‘75), an off-duty Port Authority policeman who had raced to the scene hoping to save lives, only to lose his own.

What brought George Howard to those burning skyscrapers? Why did James Regan put his promising young life on hold to join the Army? What inspired Ronald Winchester and Michael LiCalzi to plan a career of service to the United States?

With the British Channel at his back on the fortieth anniversary of D-Day, President Reagan posed similar questions about the “boys of Pointe du Hoc,” those courageous souls who risked so much to secure the first beachheads in occupied France. His description of what drove them applies equally well to most members of the American armed forces today — and as the Chaminade men demonstrate, it has nothing to do with a lack of intelligence or education or opportunities.

“It was faith and belief; it was loyalty and love. … You all knew that some things are worth dying for. One’s country is worth dying for, and democracy is worth dying for.”