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A first lieutenant in the Marine Corps infantry based at Camp Pendleton, California, Belanger led a platoon of marines in amphibious assault vehicles to Baghdad in the Iraq War. He expects to be redeployed to Iraq soon.
Y: Why did you decide to go into the Marine Corps?
B: I wanted to get beyond the books in my international relations studies and see international relations firsthand.
Y: The perception is that it’s very unusual for an Ivy League graduate to go into the military.
B: I think that’s a terrible misconception, dating from just the last 20 years. If you go to Woolsey Hall, you’ll see the veterans on the wall. There’s a very strong tradition at Yale of military service. I think it’s only a recent phenomenon that students from Yale don’t tend to be engaged in and involved in international security.
Y: And why do you think that is?
B: I think people are very interested in service, they just don’t necessarily feel that service in the military is the way for them to serve. I think, however, that that’s a mistake, because I think that we could use the talents and perspectives of Yale graduates in the military. And I want to make it very clear that I was far from the only Yalie who fought in the Iraq War.
Y: What was it like to be part of the war?
B: It’s a bit of an understatement to say that it was memorable. Something that I was most surprised by and most impressed by was how much the Iraqi people welcomed us. We would drive down the streets and there would be thousands of them lining the streets, cheering for us.
Several of my marines mentioned—and it felt like it was true—that we were rock stars at least for that short time. And for me, that was the only explanation for how few casualties we had in the war.
Y: How did you feel after you came home?
B: I felt very good about what we did. I genuinely felt that we were liberating the people of Iraq, giving them an opportunity to live in a way that they haven’t had experience with in their past, and that this was something that they wanted—the opportunity to govern themselves. I think now that the military solution has been provided, what remains is the political solution.
Y: What do you do when you are not at war? For fun?
B: Watch videos? Not much. September 11 meant a lot to me, and it’s created a sense of urgency in everything I do. I’ve cut down to the bone a lot of what I do and I focus on my friends, my family, and my marines.
Y: Where were you on September 11?
B: I was at the infantry officers’ course at the time. We cancelled our classes, we went on high alert, and we were ready to defend the fbi academy and the marine base at Quantico. There was myself on the line, with the chance that if I didn’t learn something, somebody could die. With the question of life or death, there’s a clarity about what’s important.
Y: There does not seem to be that clarity in the country as a whole. How do you feel about the mixed reactions to the Iraq action here at home?
B: I respect it, because I know that in their hearts they do support my marines as individuals, and they recognize that they have families. And it is healthy, as a democracy, to debate, discuss, and consider the direction of the country.
Y: Any regrets?
B: I regret putting my friends and family through the experience. My poor parents were watching the television, two televisions, as often as they could during the war. It makes them upset that I keep volunteering, but they understand, they recognize that I’m following my path in doing what I’m doing.
Y: It’s definitely hard to hear every day on the news that American soldiers have been killed.
B: It’s easy to count American casualties. It’s much more difficult to quantify the intangible benefits to the Iraqis and to feel the value of what we’re doing. But the people who go, in particular me and my marines, recognize that it’s a sacrifice worth making. I’m excited about the possibility of going back to Iraq. I’m studying Arabic in preparation.
Alfred Cossidente ’27S
Editors’ note: This past summer, after years of keeping his distance from Yale, Al Cossidente started writing in to the Class Notes. His warmth and pithiness won the retired Brooklyn obstetrician an instant following among alumni of all ages—including President Levin, who sent him a poem and a Yale watch for his 100th birthday this past September 11.
Sadly, Doctor Al died on November 15, shortly after the Yale Alumni Magazine talked with him for this first installment of alumni interviews. In his Note of November/December 2003, summing up the letters he had gotten from those who had written him about their own experiences at Yale, he wrote, “We surmounted our fears and went forward. We worked hard and did more than was expected.”
He did much more. We are glad to pay this last tribute to a man who added much to alumni life in such a brief period.
Y: Why did you start writing Class Notes for the magazine?
C: All these years, I never wanted to go back for a reunion because my memories did not consist of football games or good times, only hard work and survival in an atmosphere that was electric, but that didn’t particularly empathize with boys who came from simple backgrounds. When I graduated, I felt great relief after surviving four very challenging years. I never looked back. But now, I am admitting to myself that part of the problem was because I felt so inadequate.
Y: Did you expect people to write back to you?
C: I expected to hear from a few survivors from my class, but never expected to get so many e-mails and letters from so many other classes. So many of them have told me about the hard times they had in school because they were first-generation Americans, or because they had limited means, or because they were the first in their families to go to college.
Y: Do you think you have something to say to someone from, say, the Class of 1993?
C: Of course: You are young. I hope you remain young on the inside. I have known people at your age who are already very old inside. They have very few interests, are negative, and are creatures of habit. When you get to be 100, you will wonder where all those years went. However, all is not lost. If you turn out like I did, you will still be curious, will still want to meet new people and learn from them. I believe Yale did that for me. It brought out an innate curiosity and the courage to want to learn, to see, to do.
Y: When you think about your time at Yale, what do you remember most?
C: The cost. The dollar was important because it was worth so much more and was so difficult to come by. My whole family worked so that I could go to Yale. Three brothers and my sister put their lives on hold and did not marry until later in life, if at all, so that I could get an education. More than anything else, I remember the responsibility I felt to survive those four years and make my family proud.
Y: Any regrets?
C: No. There are some things I would have done differently, but I had a wonderful life. I loved my profession. I delivered over 3,000 babies and I never performed an abortion. I had a wonderful marriage of 63 years with my late wife, Babe. She was my nurse, my partner, and my friend. After we retired, we traveled extensively, even though we did not live extravagantly. We would escape the winters in New York by traveling by ship to Spain, where we bought a little apartment for $5,000. We would take our Volkswagen with us, as well as our parakeet, Beauty. Those were the days. We were very happy.
Y: So you were able to make more money after becoming a doctor?
C: Although I never made a lot of money, starting at $3 for a house call and $2 for an office visit, we lived very well. I was always careful about money, having come from a family with limited means but much respect. You see, my father was a cobbler who made beautiful shoes for wealthy people. My mother owned a little grocery store in New Haven on Summer Street. I never lived on campus. I would ride my bicycle to Yale every day, carrying the lunch my mother packed for me. I never bought a meal in the dining room at Yale.
Y: How do you feel about Yale now?
C: I have always loved Yale. I owe my profession, my way of living, my education, and my knowledge—all to Yale. I feel the same emotions that most Yalies do. But it took me about 76 years after graduation to admit that it was time to go home again.
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