Joseph Petraglia, left the military over 50 years ago, but on Wednesday he was back in uniform.
“A long time ago, I was simply known as the Sarge. That’s an abbreviation for Sergeant,” the 75-year-old told students at St. Paul’s Elementary School in Laval, Que.
Petraglia, who served in the US Army in his early 20s, was invited ahead of Remembrance Day to speak to Grade three, four, five and six students about his experience on the front lines of the Vietnam war.
He started by describing what it was like to walk through the jungle in 42-degree Celsius heat, carrying a backpack weighing 35 kilos, which elicited appreciative “wows” from the young audience.
His pack, he said when asked, contained 25-days worth of food rations that were for the most part “disgusting” save for the tinned spaghetti, three or four pairs of socks, one change of clothes and an extra pair of glasses in case he broke the ones he was wearing.
That was in addition to the ones strapped to his belt and the five others he kept at base camp, where the soldiers stayed for five days out of every month when they weren’t in combat.
“I went through Vietnam and I didn’t even scratch the ones that I was wearing,” Petraglia recalled incredulously of his glasses.
But the backpack wasn’t all that he had to carry, Petraglia was further weighed down by his steel combat helmet, flak jacket, 400 bullets, water and weapons.
Mention of the weapons elicited another murmur of appreciation from the crowd but Petraglia was quick to set the record straight.
“War is not about glory … people die, young men die,” he said, emphasizing that it wasn’t at all like what you might see on video games or TV.
“It’s not like TV, it has nothing to do with TV. It’s not pleasant”, he said, adding, “It’s important not to dramatize war.”
Petraglia didn’t shy away from describing the difficult and uncomfortable reality of being at war.
He spoke about the daily fears and answered student questions with honesty.
“I wasn’t worried about being killed, I was worried about being captured,” he said when asked about fear and dying.
“I was the leader, capture is dangerous because they will torture you.”
And while the decorated veteran didn’t choose to be in the military — he was drafted — he said he learned valuable life lessons during the war about duty, honour and respect.
“It’s very important, particularly because of today, the violence in the world … we need to respect, we need to dialogue.”
But maybe more importantly, Petraglia learned about the importance of lifting others up.
“In the military we don’t have bullying,” he said, explaining that picking on someone wouldn’t have helped the bully. They depended on each other to stay alive.
“So we always prepared the weakest one to elevate them up … and that’s what you have to think about when you’re in the school yard.”
He encouraged the kids next time they’re playing a game and picking teams, to do things differently.
Instead of picking someone last because they’re slower, “pick them first,” he said, “you’ll be surprised by how you elevate them.”
Petraglia escaped the war relatively unscathed physically. A bullet grazed his leg and he suffered hearing loss due to repeated bomb blasts and gunfire.
But he considers himself lucky.
“I’m fortunate to come home,” he said.
Emotionally, however, the scars took longer to heal.
Petraglia says he wasn’t emotionally ready to speak about his service until about 25 years ago and he hasn’t stopped sharing his story since.
“This is a reflection of how I move forward in life.”
— With files from Global News’ Anne Leclair
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