Wilton column: Selfless service comes in many forms

Stephen Hudspeth

Stephen Hudspeth

Staff / Hearst Connecticut Media

Brendan Pearse was a litigation paralegal of mine in New York City back in the 1970s, and he was an outstanding one.

However, that was just a few-year interlude in a career that was, and still is for him, a true calling: Before his paralegaling, he was a medic for two tours in Vietnam. When he ended his paralegal duties and moved to Oregon, he resumed his medical work and has continued with it through many years. In fact, at 75 he contracted the coronavirus, has thankfully recovered, and is now offering his serum for its potential immunity-conferring properties — vintage Brendan!

I mention Brendan as we observe Memorial Day this week as a reflection of the selfless service we honor, especially on that day. I also mention it because the service of our medical professionals alongside our first responders and other essential workers through this crisis is likened by many to combat service in which one’s life is repeatedly in jeopardy. For Brendan that calling aspect of his service clearly spoke to him in ways that his legal work could never satisfy, and his Vietnam medic service presaged the direction his entire life has taken.

With that thought in mind, I reflected on the bell tolling solemnly each year at the Hillside Cemetery Memorial Day observance marking the passing of each Wilton service member who died since the last observance. That tolling this year will, sadly but very necessarily, be without a large assemblage of us, young and old. And when that tolling happens, one of those tolls will be for Peter Kaskell.

Peter’s experience reflects that of many who served in World War II. He was called into dangerous service and was expected to assume responsibilities far beyond his age. Like many others, he rose to those responsibilities with great distinction. I believe the result of that rising presaged the rest of his very accomplished life.

While still under 20 years of age, Peter withdrew from Columbia University to enlist in the Army and was assigned to the Intelligence Branch since he was fluent in German, having been born in Germany. After branch training, his first assignment was in the Italian campaign in the divisional G-2 (intelligence) section of the 36th Infantry Division shortly before the Anzio landings.

The Anzio beachhead was a disaster with concentrated German forces shelling from great heights above the landing area. No place on the beachhead was safe. When an American patrol from Peter’s 36th Division brought back a captured German motorcycle courier, Peter was assigned to interrogate him. With much dialogue between them and Peter’s constant assessment and reassessment of the prisoner’s knowledge and veracity, the prisoner finally disclosed what he saw while riding his motorcycle: an abandoned and overgrown logging trail up the steep cliffs with no Germans defending it. From Peter’s knowledge of order-of-battle information, he realized that there was a huge German parachute corps on one side of this trail and a similarly huge panzer corps on the other side. But if this prisoner was right, those two corps hadn’t yet interlocked their defenses.

Peter, then a tech sergeant, had to convince divisional G-2, a colonel, and then the division’s commander, a major general, that he was right in his analysis. He did so, the division commander acted on that intelligence assessment, and with that, successful breakout from the disastrous beachhead began. That’s a lot riding on the effectiveness of interrogation and analysis done by a teenager! His success in doing that led to his promotion to officer grade and the award of a Bronze Star decoration.

Peter learned at Anzio the benefits of foresight and initiative in a lesson he applied throughout his remarkable life. He not only led Olin Corporation’s legal work as its vice president and general counsel but was also an early and vigorous advocate in national legal circles for the use of alternative dispute resolution — a concept now widely accepted and encouraged in court-required mediation processes across the country but revolutionary at the time when Peter was in the forefront of advancing it among his general counsel colleagues nationwide.

That took the foresight, initiative, and courage of convictions that Peter learned so well at such an early age. For Peter, Brendan, and many others like them who acted then, and are acting now, in service to their country, that service presaged their lives ever after. Those serving on the coronavirus’ front lines are seeing their heroic work benefiting us all, and their experience now hopefully will sustain and guide them throughout their lives.