NISKAYUNA — Jake Schuler has spoken to veterans and students at past Memorial Day observances at Niskayuna High School.
The Olmstedville resident and 1964 graduate of Niskayuna High School spoke again Friday.
This time, he brought different words.
“I wanted to share with everyone here something I’ve never shared with anybody, ever,” Schuler said, at the 27th annual observance outside the Balltown Road school. “I’d like to share a few passages from the last two letters I received from Lt. Robert S. Cragin in February of 1968, just before he was killed in action in Vietnam.”
Cragin and two fellow 1960s-era Niskayuna graduates — Vernon F. Hovey III and Pvt. 1st Class Richard W. Starkey — are always remembered at the Memorial Day observance.
Cragin, who graduated from Niskayuna in 1962 and was an Army infantry unit commander, was killed in action in Gian Dinh on Feb. 26, 1968 at age 23.
Hovey, a 1st lieutenant with the Army’s 101st Airborne Division who graduated from Niskayuna in 1964, died June 5, 1970 when he was shot down over Thua Thien, South Vietnam. He was 23.
Starkey, who graduated in the class of 1965, was in a U.S. Marine who died in ground combat in Quang Tri, South Vietnam on Sept. 17, 1969. He was 22.
Cragin’s words from 51 years ago touched people on a breezy, slightly chilly spring day — with Schuler taking a few pauses between sentences.
“Hey Jake,” Schuler read, “I’ve been in the field for the past 11 days. As you know by now, all hell has broken loose in Vietnam. After we got back the next day, our company went into the largest city in the Delta. We then moved on and it was World War II-type street fighting. We went from building to building looking for snipers.
“The next day we were air-lifted back to the boats in the Delta and we thought we had it made,” Schuler continued. “Twelve hours later we were back on our assault boats in the Delta. We beached and were immediately pinned down. We had many, many acts of heroism in my platoon, people were charging bunkers with M16s and hand grenades and in another platoon, a soldier dove on a hand grenade to prevent his fellow GIs from suffering any harm.
“He goes on to say, ‘I’m still lucky,'” Schuler read.
Cragin also entrusted a top secret mission to Schuler: “Don’t say anything about this to my parents,” he wrote. “I don’t want them to know what’s going on.”
In the second letter, Cragin talked about his appearance.
“You wouldn’t believe how gross I look,” Schuler read. “I have a very short crew cut and a fairly bushy moustache. I’m going to let it grow out and then have some pictures taken and send them home.”
Schuler said the photos were never taken. “Those were the last words I ever heard from him,” he said.
Schuler’s next words were easy to find: “I guess I’ve said it before and I’m going to say it again,” he said. “We cannot, we must not and we will not ever forget.”
The ceremony featured performances by the high school’s concert band and Bel Canto Voices singing ensemble. There were also words from James Wilson, Navy veteran and past district commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars.
“When the call of our country was heard, these three brave men answered it,” Wilson said. “Self was forgotten in the cause of the greater good … we owe them a tremendous debt of gratitude for what they did.”
Names of deceased veterans were read; members of Niskayuna’s class of 2019 who are entering military service were recognized. Each branch of the military was celebrated in music.
Several high school students attended the ceremony.
“It’s extremely important,” said Principal John W. Rickert. “It’s hard for a student today to understand the sacrifices that somebody made a long time ago.
“When I was listening to Jake read that letter, I got a little choked up myself. Those were his words, he was describing combat and what he was going through and I was thinking to myself, ‘I hope our students are listening to this message and gaining an understanding and an appreciation.’
“It’s hard for them to envision that and understand that,” Rickert added. “They haven’t been through a situation quite like that.”
Contact Gazette reporter Jeff Wilkin at 518-395-3124 or at [email protected]