Even for adults, history is often an abstract concept. For high school students, it can be even more intangible. Mr. Dave Stone, Cushing’s Dean of Faculty, teaches a class on the Vietnam War, but he knows how important it is to put historical events in perspective for his students. To do that, he invited Dennis Driscoll ’61 to speak to his class about what it was really like to fight in that war.
Captain Driscoll grew up in Mount Hermon, Mass., but is one of four generations of Cushing Academy alumni. He noted that he wasn’t a big fan of school, in particular of reading, but that his Cushing teachers took an interest in him and taught him to appreciate learning. Following his time at Cushing he attended Stonehill College. When he graduated, he volunteered for the army and spent a year training with his troops before heading to Vietnam. He spent a lot of time reading about World War II and the United States Indian Wars, figuring it would help him understand was happening in Vietnam—and he was right. He and his men did survival training, squad tactics, and more. It was hard work, but he knew how important it was. “You’ve got to do the work,” he told Mr. Stone’s students. “If you want something, you have to be willing to work for it.”
As you might imagine, being in Vietnam during the late 1960s wasn’t easy. He soon learned that all kinds of smells carry—be it cigarette smoke, shampoo, or last night’s dinner. Whenever the opportunity presented itself, he and his men would jump in the river and use the water and sand to wash the scents from their bodies. They also had to evade all kinds of wildlife, including leeches, snakes, and even sharks. Booby traps were common and excrement was used as a weapon.
But his time in Vietnam wasn’t all bad, and he even ran into some folks who knew Cushing. One day, on a branch of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, he made small talk with a fellow from Massachusetts. During the conversation, he learned that this fellow’s brother was married to a girl from Ashburnham whose father was a teacher at the Academy named Paul Heslin. In December 1967, Captain Driscoll was injured and sent to the hospital for surgery. Several years later, after the war, he was at an Ashburnham swim club when he ran into his surgeon, Dr. Joseph Hill, who also just happened to be a member of the Cushing Academy Board of Trustees.
He learned a lot from his time in Vietnam. Mr. Driscoll observed that, “the Vietnamese are wonderful people.” He and his men helped one Vietnamese woman give birth to twins. Such help was common for the soldiers, and while he saw many American soldiers lose their lives just helping, he understood how important it was to do good. In fact, he says, “We have an obligation to help one another—both overseas and at home.”
On his way to Vietnam, he didn’t think much about what was going to happen because he was too worried about preparing his men. It wasn’t until he was on his way home that he understood how bad things really were. And when he got back, in spite of his courage in fighting a difficult war, people called him baby-killer and threw excrement at him because the media focused so much on the bad parts of the war. “The good stuff—holding babies and helping out—that didn’t make it to the news,” he said.
The lessons he learned about helping out followed him after his return from Vietnam. He spent four years teaching history at Cushing before spending more than 30 years at Oakmont and Overlook, the public schools in town, where he was a teacher, coach, and assistant principal. Indeed, the park behind Oakmont High School is named after him. These days, he volunteers at the VA so that soldiers and their families have someone to talk to who understands what they’re going through.
Clearly, Dennis Driscoll believes in giving back and knows that his experiences have something to teach current Cushing students—not just about what must seem fairly history, but also about how to make a positive difference in the world. We’re grateful for his lifetime of service.