Elmhurst College honors generations of veterans

ELMHURST – The typical U.S. undergraduate has spent the majority of their life in a post-9/11 America, but few of them have experienced first-hand a post-9/11 war zone.

"You're not going to know what it's like until you go over there," said 23-year-old Cameron Kasmar, who returned from active duty as a Corporal in the U.S. Marine Corp. in May.

He made the realization quickly after he returned from the first of his two 8-month tours in Afghanistan in 2009. When Kasmar left for boot camp a week after graduating high school, his fellow 18-year-olds went to work or college.

"When I came back from my first deployment it was hilarious," said Kasmar. "My friends from high school acted like I was never gone."

He couldn't believe they didn't know what was going on outside of their small world, and they knew very little about the war Kasmar was fighting.

Mark Draper, assistant director at Elmhurst College's Niebuhr Center for Faith and Action, recently discovered the same need to engage young people with veterans. He said that today's college students have grown up in a very individualistic culture and see Kasmar's service as more of a choice than a duty in the draftless era.

Draper wants to give students the opportunity to see Kasmar's perspective that his fight was for all of them, whether they support the controversial war or not.

"Since World War II, the goals have not been as clear," Draper said.

So, the Niebuhr Center, along with student groups and departments, assembled a panel of veterans from WWII, Korea, Vietnam and Afghanistan to give a panel discussion to Elmhurst College students and the community Wednesday.

Panelists included Sergeant Fae Gedz, Dr. Sid Barsky and Rand Burdette who all served during World War II. Burdette also served in the Korean War. Two Vietnam War veterans, W. Glen Cross and Rus Strahan, also joined Kasmar on the panel.

"To me, this was something that had to be done, and I was personally going to take care of Hitler," said Gedz about why she enlisted in the Army even though she was protected from the draft as a woman.

She laughed a little, but explained that at the time she really believed in her ability to contribute to the war. Her sense of purpose and objective contrasted with today's military missions.

Elmhurst College graduate Thomas Gilligan, 28, returned from Afghanistan June 15. He wasn't seated on the panel, but still offered his perspective on the purpose today's military finds in its service.

"We're all going to be able to look in the mirror at 40 and say we stepped up; we did what our country asked us to do," Gilligan said.

Kasmar admits he used to have strong political opinions, and even thought he might run for office before he joined the military. Today, the Northern Illinois University freshman finance major said that even though his active duty is over, he imagines he'll continue to hold a new opinion.

"I kind of consider my political views [these days] to be irrelevant, because it's not my job as a Marine," Kasmar said.

Following the discussion, all veterans, both on stage and in the audience were asked to stand and be recognized. About a dozen men and women stood in addition to those on the panel. One pair was adorned with leather motorcycle vests and patches supporting our troops. Others wore uniforms, but a handful of young veterans stood in the room silent, camouflaged in the crowd by their t-shirts.

"I didn't know that we had veterans that were studying among us," said Elmhurst College Sophomore Keli Kliebhan at the presentation.

It was a truth Gilligan has eluded to earlier. Many of today's service men and women blend seamlessly in with the academic world. Many, like Gilligan, hold bachelor's degrees or higher level diplomas.

One of them was Lori Tompos, a West Point graduate and current MBA student at Elmhurst College. She sat patiently next to her 15-year-old daughter, Laurel, during the panel, but stood after to share her experience in Desert Storm.

"I'm thankful as a man that there are other men willing to step up and fight for our country, so that I don't have to," said Elmhurst College Junior Jeremy Bernas."I can study because these men are fighting on my behalf."

Kasmar remembers watching news coverage of the 9/11 attacks in middle school and thinking he had to do something. He admits that, at that age, he wasn't thinking about becoming a Marine, but he still felt the need to act.

"That day was our generation's call to stand up and oppose terrorism," Kasmar said.