As a Schenectady high school senior in 1965, Vince Bianchi was issued a Vietnam War draft card with the low lottery number of 45. It is a number he said he has never forgotten.
Because he was going to college to become a teacher, he was granted a deferment. Others were not as fortunate.
“I had football buddies — guys I threw passes to — who didn’t make it a year,” he said, studying the ground on a sunny day in early autumn.
When Bianchi graduated from college, he secured a teaching job at Niskayuna High School. Again, he went to the draft board.
“I was fortunate enough to get a teaching deferment,” he said.
Bianchi is still behind the safe walls of the high school, where he spent 33 years as a teacher and active member of the Niskayuna Teachers Association, and now works as a parttime student activities coordinator.
His colleague, retired Niskayuna history teacher Peter Warren, graduated high school in 1971 and had many friends who served in Vietnam.
Both men expressed lingering anger at how the conflict was a class war, and created stark differences in fate.
As an educator for 36 years, Warren taught students about the controversial Vietnam War— where three Niskayuna high school graduates were among 58,200 soldiers killed. He had veterans of different wars come in to talk with students about war, foreign policy, insurgency and counter insurgency.
One day, he realized he wanted to connect those lessons with the landscape in front of them.
“I had former students who were going off to war in Iraq and Afghanistan. The flags and the yellow ribbons following 9/11 had faded. It was business as usual in America,” Warren said. “But my students were in harm’s way serving their country.”
He began a project to honor them by setting up photos of military alumni in the front of the school. Names were read over the public address system.
But soon, the school ran out of space to continue the display.
“We have (more than) a dozen students who go into the service every year,” Warren said. He came up with the idea of using a computerized scrolling system to be on permanent display.
A search was on for the name and military service branch of all students and alumni. Today, the electronic veterans honor roll recognizes 359 veterans and takes one hour to run through. The Army, Navy, Air Force, Coast Guard and Marines are all represented.
The program also honors students who left school to fight in wars and did not graduate, but were later bestowed honorary diplomas through “Operation Recognition.”
Outside the school, a tall American flag snaps in the autumn wind, rising above a veteran’s memorial created in 2005. Each year the school community has a Memorial Day observance and honors the three graduates killed in action in Vietnam: Robert Cragin, Vernon Hovey and Richard Starkey.
Back indoors, a stilled American flag is positioned next to the monitor of names.
At Niskayuna High School, every day is Veterans Day.
“I’m in awe of the people who serve our country,” said Bianchi.