Master Chief  Richard Iannucci has come a long way since he nearly flunked out of Trumbull High School 51 years ago.

Iannucci, who spoke at Friday’s Veterans Day assembly at St. Joseph High School, told his story of drifting through high school and enrolling in the Navy, where he found a purpose to which he would dedicate most of his life before retiring in 2004. At times the story was not a happy one, such as his 1970 return from service in Vietnam.

“I came back to a country that was divided, and for the next eight years I did not attend a single Veterans Day ceremony,” he said. “I was a proud veteran, but not a proud American. Our country had turned its back on its veterans.”

For eight years he struggled to fit into civilian life, before re-enlisting in 1978. Now, events like the one Friday have him feeling more optimistic, which is why he is now willing to share his memories with the next generation.

“Veterans Day to me is the best holiday of all,” he said. “It’s a day that I think about the passage of years, and the laughter and the tears.”

Sergeant Michael Bennedetto, a veteran of the U.S. Army and Marine Corps, said service in a combat zone had taught him not to take anything for granted. In fact, the sense of possible loss stays with him due to experience, he said.

“I had a friend killed in a car crash, taken from us while he was home and supposedly safe,” Bennedetto said.

Like Iannucci, Bennedetto said he struggled to adapt to life outside of the military. But meeting Iannucci and becoming involved in veterans groups re-instilled the structure that he had been lacking since leaving the military, he said.

“Richard saved my life,” he said.

Iannucci and Bennedetto are members of the Port 5 Naval Veterans, the oldest military service group in the country.  Dating back to 187, Port 5 began as Naval Militia, Port 5 in Salem, Massachusetts. In 1948, the group settled into its current location in Bridgeport. The Port 5 Naval Veterans Group is made up of 960 members from all branches of the service, including the Men’s and Ladies Auxiliaries. At one time, there were 40 such ports across the nation. Port 5 is the last remaining one.