The assignment was simple and straightforward: Watch a movie in class based on letters written by U.S. soldiers during the Vietnam War. Then sit down and write a letter back to one of the soldiers explaining how his or her words have touched you.
And so, late last month, Alan Helmreich’s history class at Sanford High School settled in for the 1987 HBO documentary “Dear America: Letters Home from Vietnam.”
For 87 minutes, they listened and watched as an A-list of Hollywood actors read the letters – some humorous, some heartbreaking – over actual footage from the war and a nonstop sound track of 1960s rock ’n’ roll anthems.
Riveting stuff, to be sure. Yet through it all, whenever an Army helicopter appeared, 19-year-old Matt Hawks leaned even closer from his desk to scan each and every grainy face that flashed across the screen.
“I knew he was a helicopter pilot,” Matt recalled last week. “So I was like, ‘Wait, could that be him?’ ”
He’s talking about Warrant Officer Martin James Coronis, 24, who was piloting an assault helicopter over Kontum Province, in South Vietnam’s Central Highlands, when it was hit by enemy fire and crashed into a mountainside on July 11, 1967. All aboard – Coronis, his co-pilot and a passenger – perished.
Marty Coronis was Matt Hawks’ grandfather.
It’s easy, as we prepare to celebrate Veterans Day on Monday, to focus on what was rather than what might have been. As World War I, World War II, Korea and now Vietnam recede further into history with each passing Nov. 11, the names and faces of lives cut short grow a little more blurry – footnotes to an era many would rather forget.
Then along comes a kid like Matt Hawks and suddenly a guy like Marty Coronis is once again thrust front-and-center into our collective memory, a reminder that even as the wars grow old, their casualties remain forever young.
After the class finished watching the film that day, Matt asked teacher Helmreich if he could do the assignment a little differently: Rather than pen his letter to a soldier in the movie, could he write one to his grandfather?
“Even better!” replied an enthusiastic Helmreich.
A little bit about Matt: Almost two years ago he dropped out of Sanford High School in the middle of his senior year to go to work – first at a Burger King and then delivering ice to mom-and-pop stores throughout York County.
“But being out there in the workforce, I realized how much I needed my diploma to actually advance,” he said.
He tried adult education, but it wasn’t a good fit. So, after seeking and receiving advice from the staff of Gov. Paul LePage on how to re-enroll at Sanford High, he returned in September to a very full course load (no room for study periods) that will enable him to finally graduate this June.
“We’re really proud of Matt for coming back,” said Helmreich, who’s taught history at Sanford High for 27 years. “To have the courage to come back and make that commitment after being away for a year is so, so difficult. It just doesn’t happen. To actually do it is so fantastic.”
By his own admission, Matt is far from the disenchanted kid who turned his back on his education in early 2012.
“Two years ago, I wouldn’t have ever even done this assignment,” he said. “I would have been lucky if I even showed up for class.”
No longer. Matt will be 20 when he graduates – just four years younger than Marty Coronis was when he died. Finishing school, Matt has come to realize at this point in his young life, is vastly more important than any job.
Which brings us back to that letter: In order to write to his long-departed grandfather, Matt first needed to learn more about him.
Matt’s mother, born Angelica Coronis, was only 2 when her father died. And his grandmother, who later remarried, doesn’t like to talk much about it.
So Matt, armed with the few photos and snippets of information he had managed to pick up about his grandfather over the years, got on the Internet and started searching. From the name, rank and, of all things, the helicopter’s identification number – UH-1D 63-08844 – a 46-year-old story began to emerge.
“One of your roommates and friend from flight school, Tony Kernagis, wrote a post about you,” Matt wrote in his “Dear Martin” letter. “It said he heard a Mayday call on one of his first flights and he flew to the side of a mountain and picked up the downed crew, among which was you. The next day he had the honor of presenting your helmet on an altar during a ceremony in your tent. He said he ‘will remember you forever.’”
Drawing from a letter Coronis wrote home to Nashua, N.H., just a few weeks before he died, Matt recalled how his grandfather had been shot down once before: That time, a wounded Coronis carried his fellow crew members across a rice paddy to a rescue helicopter.
“I’m unsure if I could have the courage to do what you did that day,” Matt wrote.
The deeper into the letter he got, the more Matt found himself traveling back in time. It reminded him in some ways of a video game – hovering over the fatal crash site, watching as soldiers below tried in vain to save his grandfather and the others.
Yet this was no video game. Even over almost five decades, this war story became more real with each keystroke.
“I actually had to stop writing halfway through – I had to walk away from it for an hour,” said Matt. “It was kind of getting to me.”
Quietly, he added, “It’s kind of getting to me a little bit right now just talking about it.”
His only wish is that he could go back in time, actually mail the letter to his grandfather and get one in return. Better yet, Matt would give anything “for a pretend phone that I could pick up and just call him, talk with him for like five minutes.”
He’d ask how his grandparents met, how Coronis came to be in the Army, how it felt to be a helicopter pilot. He’d tell his grandfather how he long wanted to be a military pilot, too, but can’t due to his asthma and a back injury he suffered carrying ice last summer.
Most of all, Matt said, “I would just love to have the connection.”
At the end of his letter, Matt tells his grandfather, “I talked to my grandmother last night and she told me to tell you she loves and misses you.”
He also notes that when he breathes his last, “I hope … you’ll be at the gate to greet me and welcome me in.”
All in good time.
For now, Matt Hawks has a future to map – starting with that walk down the aisle this June to receive that much-deserved Sanford High School diploma. It’s a diploma earned in part by honoring a soldier whose name, on this Veterans Day, might otherwise go unuttered.
Warrant Officer Martin James Coronis.
Gone but by no means forgotten, he’s got to be one proud grandfather.
Columnist Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at: