Jim Cava puts on a one-man USO show.
He is not a movie star or a professional singer, the kind that usually travel to distant war zones to keep up the moral of the troops.
He isn't entertaining the troops at all, but classrooms full of kids throughout Northern New Jersey. His routine, complete with slides, songs and patriotic slogans, beats the drum of American pride in his single-handed determination to bolster a new generation of American patriotism and inject good character into the American way of life.
"My goal is to educate and re-educate, to enlighten the hearts and minds of all Americans, especially elementary school, middle school high school and college students,” he said, his gaze cast towards some vision of his own.
Dressed in his Marine Class A uniform -- a pale, nearly mustard green with thick red stripes -- Cava looks as if he just stepped out of a military parade. Except for one empty sleeve and a slightly graying crew cut, he looks as much in shape at age fifty as he must have been at eighteen.
He carried himself with the same rigid posture drill sergeants did, leaving a strong impression upon the students he encountered, even before terrorists attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001.
Cava, his stern face and steady eye, recounted tales he'd heard or things he'd seen, his rhetoric often falling into song or poems.
"I try to teach the kids the correlation between American principals and patriotism, values and good character," he said.
Cava toured Vietnam as a United State Navy corpsman assigned to the U.S. Marines, and generally wore his Marines uniform when he came to schools to each. The Marines do not have medical corpsman of their own, and generally have Navy corpsmen like Cava assigned to each unit
"I'm entitled to wear both," he said. "I choose to wear this one."
Not shy about branishing his honors -- which includes Purple Heart, a Combat Action Ribbon, and a National Defense Service Metal, Cava sells his program to teachers and politicians as well as to the kids. The New Jersey State Assembly even honored him for his dedication to promoting patriotism. His resume boasted of his tour of duty at a variety of patriotic ceremonies taking him from war memorial to war memorial, from Veteran's Day to Memorial Day, and back. He seems most proud of his repeated appearances at the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington and similar appearances at New Jersey's version in Homdel.
With his performances often full of shouting out slogans and foot stomping songs, Cava has become something of a legend, even among veteran's groups. He might have easily become an old fashioned, Bible-totting preacher of the fundamentalist circuit had he adopted that faith first, his tone and manner thick with the spirit typical of fire and brimstone speeches. He chants, sings, pleads, even sheds a tear, hoping to convince people to return to the right road to salvation: love of their country."
"Good people died to assure American freedoms," he says, even preaching during his interview, an interview in which he made no secret about his disappointment over the public's previous lack of patriotism -- a matter that changed so drastically after 9/11 his marginal opinion rocketed into the mainstream market with many ordinary people echoing his terminology. He frequently blamed the loss in Vietnam to "a weak-willed government."
Cava grew up in Carlstadt, a small industrial town, along the western shore of the Hackensack River, where he lived a very typical American life, playing baseball in the Little League, and running track in his church parish's track meets. He said was always a devout Christian, attending Catholic schools all the way through high school.
Long before he enlisted at seventeen years old, Cava said Vietnam consumed him. He recalled how “concerned and saddened” he felt when the news reported the first American soldier's death in Vietnam.
Cava took his intial training at the U.S. Naval Training Center in Illinois, then moved onto San Diego for advanced military training at Basic Hospital Corps School where he became a corpsman. Later, he prepared for jungle warfare with Marines at their base in California, before being assigned to Vietnam.
"My base camp was a village called An Hoa, approximately seventeen kilometers south of Da Nang," Cava says.
His unit spent most of its time out in the field searching for enemies, and thus encountered numerous hazards from land mines, snipers and other hidden traps to poisonous snakes, malaria and leeches.
On November 20, 1968, two months after his arrival in Vietnam, the helicopter transporting Cava and other members of his unit got hit by enemy fire as it tried to land in a battle zone.
"My chopper was the first to be hit," Cava recalls. "The pilot and co-pilot were killed instant and the huge CH-46 (transport helicopter) went down, tumbled three times and exploded into a ball of flame."
Days later – unconscious through the rescue in which fellow Marines saved his life – Cava opened his eyes in a hospital in Guam.
"My left arm was gone, and my legs were encased in hard plaster," he says.
Cava had also sustained injuries to his legs and back, injuries serious enough to send him back to the United States and eventually discharged him.
More than thirty years after his discharge, Cava can't always relate the depth of disappointment he felt back then, how depressed he was, not just about his misfortune, but about how little support he felt by the public, blaming the government and lack of patriotism for a good part of his depression.
"For many hours and for many days and weeks, I would sit in church unfeeling yet searching," he says. "I tried to find myself."
Cava says he prayed for answers, even as he wandered through a variety of careers, volunteering to serve at veteran's hospitals, mental facilities and hospices.
"I studied voice with four vocal teachers in New York City and New Jersey in pursuit of a singing career," he says. Then he studied acting, psychology, even hotel restaurant management.
"Like a pendulum, I went back and forth from singing and acting career to college and a degree," he says.
Years went by, and he continued to pray. Then in the early 1990s – as if an answer to his prayers – he decided to establish a program he called "Operation Red, White and Blue," a tour of public spaces from schools to official veterans' ceremonies that would re-educate Americans to values he still considered scared.
Cava developed a series of five programs, each addressing a different level of student from kindergarten children to adults, each more sophisticated than the previous lecture, but all emphasizing themes he said he felt strongly enough about to sing over and shout out.
"I want to help these kids develop good character, and that means caring about themselves, their neighbors and their country," Cava says.