November 10, 2013

Bill Nemitz: Long-gone vet becomes part of grandson’s uphill battle

A history assignment takes Matt Hawks back in time.

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.

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Sanford High School senior Matt Hawks talks about a school writing assignment he did about his grandfather, who died in the Vietnam War.

John Patriquin/Staff Photographer

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Martin James Coronis in November 1965. The grandfather of Sanford High School senior Matt Hawks died in 1967 in a helicopter crash in Vietnam.

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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.

(Continued on page 2)

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