EBy Aidan Fitzgerald ‘18
Every October, the student body gathers for a Mass unlike any other. Beginning with the playing of “Taps” and a procession by the Marine Corps Color Guard, the Gold Star Mass honors all Chaminade alumni who have died in service to our nation. These brave men exemplify the virtue of selflessness espoused by Catholicism, offering a compelling call to each and every student to follow their model of a true Chaminade Man – one who always does what is right, regardless of the consequences. And although each of these 56 men hold in common a sense of duty and patriotism shared across decades, each of their stories is different, and each has left a lasting impact in his own way.
One such soldier is Ronald Winchester ’97, a Gold Star alumnus killed in combat in September of 2004.
Born in 1979, Ronnie grew up in Rockville Centre. He began his studies at Chaminade in 1993 and was an offensive lineman on the football team. His classmate and friend, Mr. Matthew Kaplan ’97, recalls that Ronnie “loved to laugh, always had a smile on his face, and was a gritty competitor.”
What’s fascinating to me is that all these years later, Ronnie has had such a tremendous impact on the people who knew him, and people he’s never even met.
– Ronald Winchester, father
Even during his time at Chaminade, Ronnie knew he wanted to serve his country. Influenced by his grandfather, who served in the Marines, Ronnie had his heart set on joining the military. “Even back then he was a Marine,” Mr. Kaplan recalled. “He worked hard in everything he did.”
Ronnie’s success on the field and in the classroom took him to the United States Naval Academy, where he started on the Navy football team for two years. At the same time, he began a career of military service. In honor of Ronnie, Navy has since created a football award, called the Lt. Ron Winchester Unsung Hero Award.
After graduating from the Naval Academy, Ronnie joined the Marines and eventually rose to the rank of first lieutenant. He had command of about 90 men while filling this role during his second deployment. It was during this deployment to Iraq that Ronnie’s life was tragically taken. He died on September 3, 2004.
“What’s fascinating to me is that all these years later, Ronnie has had such a tremendous impact on the people who knew him, and people he’s never even met,” said his father, Ronald Winchester.
During the second Battle of Fallujah, our company lost 33 men. In the past few years, I’ve come to realize the time will come when we have lost more of our fellow troops to suicide than to actual battle.
– Zach Iscol
One of these people is Ronnie’s best friend in training camp, Zach Iscol. Zach, a New York native and Cornell graduate, came to know Ronnie while they were training for the Marines. The pair became close friends, forging a tight bond during their time training together. Zach relates a story in which his birthday fell at a point during training when the trainees were only allowed a ration of one brownie per day. To help him celebrate, Ronnie gave his only food to Zach, and he even snuck in a candle to complete the birthday surprise.
The last time Zach saw Ronnie was shortly before the latter’s second deployment to Iraq. Ronnie had driven several hours to see Zach one last time before Zach had to head overseas. They shared many laughs together, and Ronnie begged Zach to stay out later than he did, but Zach left because his flight to Iraq was set for the next morning.
This final encounter has had a lasting effect on Zach, who explains, “To this day I still wear a bracelet with [Ronnie’s] name on it, as a reminder.”
Zach completed his service in Iraq and was later deployed to other parts of the world. Since he returned home, he has started a multimedia company and a nonprofit organization. Both of these ventures have been in service to other members of the military. His multimedia company runs websites like HirePurpose, which connects employers to veterans, and Task and Purpose, a news and lifestyle website for members of the military community.
He has also started the Headstrong Project, a nonprofit aimed at reducing veteran suicides. He explains his inspiration by saying that, “during the second Battle of Fallujah, our company lost 33 men. In the past few years, I’ve come to realize the time will come when we have lost more of our fellow troops to suicide than to actual battle.”
The Headstrong Project plans to fix this by going into cities and giving veterans seeking help the best care they can receive, totally free of cost. Headstrong has partnered with the Weill Cornell Medical Center, which ensures that the care given to veterans is, in fact, the best possible. The foundation runs off of donations, which have helped fuel its expansion across the country. A link to donate can be found at www.getheadstrong.org/donate.
Every time I walk into my kids’ room, I think of Ronnie, or the other Marines I lost overseas. I get to be here, and have the opportunity to have a family and have a life. But Ronnie Winchester is always going to be 25 years old. And so we have an obligation to live for them, and to continue their mission of serving others, for which they sacrificed everything.
– Zach Iscol
Zach has been inspired to serve veterans in these ways because of his relationships with friends like Ronnie and other fellow Marines.
“Every time I walk into my kids’ room, I think of Ronnie, or the other Marines I lost overseas,” said Zach. “I get to be here, and have the opportunity to have a family and have a life. But Ronnie Winchester is always going to be 25 years old. And so we have an obligation to live for them, and to continue their mission of serving others, for which they sacrificed everything.”
Ronnie Winchester is one of 56 Gold Star Alumni who gave their lives for this great country, but his impact cannot be understated. His influence, like the influence of all of our Gold Star Alumni, can still be felt today. His sacrifices inspire so many of us to remain faithful to the goal of putting others before ourselves, so that each year when we as a school sit for the Gold Star Mass, we do not simply remember the lives of 56 brave men, but are also strengthened in our resolve to continue serving others.
Just like Ronnie did.