Drums for Troops: Students’ efforts lauded

Sixteen of the 19 Drums for Troops lined the Woodland auditorium stage Thursday night. Project organizer Jack Lardis, a Beacon Falls artist, presented the drums to Col. John Whitford of the Connecticut National Guard.

BEACON FALLS — Capping a week of owning up to one’s activities—or lack thereof—during the Vietnam conflict, Woodland Regional High School Principal Dr. Arnold Frank marched to the podium in his school’s auditorium Thursday night and made the following admission:

“In August of 1969, guess where I was? A little town in New York, Bethel. Yes, I was at Woodstock,” Frank said, a smirk tugging at the corners of his mouth. “I am a living, breathing member of the Woodstock generation. And there are many things about that generation I’m very, very proud of. One of the things, as I look back—and I wanted to speak about tonight—was something that perhaps I’m not so proud of. … We did not have the proper respect for the military back in 1969 and 1970. It was a mistake, and perhaps the anger that the young people felt, myself included, back then was misplaced.”

The principal then declared his admiration of students at his and 14 other area schools who, regardless of their opinions of U.S. operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, demonstrated their support of American soldiers by participating in a project called Drums for Troops.

Launched in February by Beacon Falls artist Jack Lardis, the initiative involves painting  empty, 30-gallon oil drums, filling them with dry goods—anything from food to shaving cream to  bed sheets—and shipping them to troops overseas. Sixteen of the 19 colorful barrels stood at attention in front of the Woodland stage Thursday, as Lardis presented them to Col. John Whitford of the Connecticut National Guard before a crowd of more than 100 people, including many student artists and their families.

“We took this idea,” Lardis said, “this powerful idea, and we gave the valley community an opportunity to give back to the soldiers who are on the front lines for us. The project was creative, was educational, and it allowed the community at large to participate in a meaningful way.”

In a pounding play on words, the ceremony featured a patriotic medley, performed by the Mattatuck Drum Band.

Lardis said schools—including Woodland and Naugatuck high schools and Long River, City Hill and Hillside middle schools—veterans clubs and businesses collected more than 1,000 pounds of goods. They also raised cash to buy additional items and pay for the drums’ considerable shipping costs. Top fundraisers included the Valley Community Foundation and Walmart of Derby, $500 combined; Lifecare, Inc. of Shelton and United Illuminating, $500 apiece; and Ansonia Public Schools, $800.

Perhaps even more meaningful than material donations are the scores of letters, poems and cards composed by students.

“I just hope [the troops] are thankful and hope they really appreciate it because I did put a lot of time and effort into this,” said Shannon Magrane, a Woodland senior who helped paint her school’s drum, “In the Jungle.” “And I think they will. We got a lot of donations form the school—I think that’s the more important thing, the cards, the letters and all the goods that we donated.”

Whitford, though not a veteran of Iraq or Afghanistan, assured Magrane and the rest of the assembly that Drums for Troops would brighten the days of soldiers who receive them.

“You don’t know what it means to a service member, in boosting their morale, when they receive a little bit of something from home, to know the thought, the hard work and the effort that all of you put into this,” he said. “… It means a lot to our men and women in uniform to know that when they’re in harm’s way that they’re being thought of by all of you back here at home, that what they’re doing is not for nothing.”

State Rep. Theresa Conroy (D-105th District) delivered to Lardis a citation from the General Assembly, recognizing his effort as organizer of Drums for Troops.

She, like Frank, applauded students’ support of military members and entreated them to be active, informed citizens, even at young ages. While not a Woodstock festival participant, the former Department of Veterans Affairs nurse expressed regrets about her aloofness while growing up in the Vietnam era.

“Looking back, I wish I was a little bit more present at that time,” Conroy said. “Back during the Vietnam War, I’m sure you all remember, we had hippies, we had a lot of conflicts, but more importantly our troops were not welcomed home. Our own residents and citizens of this great country that I’m so proud of, we were in so much conflict with ourselves with that war that now we all pledged to ourselves that we’ll never do that again. … I would never want to have happen to any servicemen what happened back in Vietnam.”

The gift-bearing drums ship out next month.