Vietnam Veterans of America
Dispelling Myths: Chapter 20 Teaches Kids about the Vietnam War
One of the reasons Joseph Peck likes going to schools to talk about the Vietnam War is that most students believe that everyone carried a gun and everyone was in combat. “These talks are mostly to dispel myths like that,” Peck says. “Everyone was there: dentists, doctors, bakers, office clerks, engineers.”
Geno Lenyk says that veterans can say what textbooks can never express—living history, real experiences. Shared experiences fill in the details of facts, dates, cold knowledge. Chuck Macaluso wanted to talk to students in the early years because “people had begun to realize the Vietnam vet should not be blamed for this war.”
Members of Chapter 20 in Rochester, New York, have been going to schools for more than twenty years. Even veterans who are shy at first soon begin to talk, enjoying the telling, the students, and the personal explanations of what few on the outside understand.
These are not history lessons about battles, dates, and generals. As Lenyk says, “Textbooks often ignore the Vietnam War completely, others wash over it, and few are any good at all. Plus, teachers are restricted by material and time.”
Even if the textbooks were decent, Peck says, “One can learn only so much from a book. There is no other person on earth who has had your exact experiences.” One book is required reading: The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien, which all the speakers say is deeply influential. Kenneth Allocco said that they sometimes discuss larger battles but that usually depends on how much information and detail the students have been exposed to from classes, books, and movies.
There are notable exceptions. Lenyk’s experience is that French exchange students know about Dien Bien Phu, having studied it in France. He compares Dien Bien Phu to Khe Sahn in order to show how technology alters war. In the 1954 battle, the French had no way to get supplies, unlike what happened at Khe Sahn.
Lenyk also points out that the war was very different before and after Tet 1968. “For some, Tet was a psychological loss because we’d been told the war was all but won. Then this enormous offensive was carried out, meaning the war would drag on.” But Lenyk tries to stress to kids that from a military perspective Tet was a victory. “Tet destroyed the Viet Cong,” he said. “After Tet, NVA regulars had to come down from the north to fight. Only Hue still held Viet Cong and that is another story.”
Fred Elliott said, “Dates and battles mean little to an adolescent. But everyday life does.” He says they ask, “What did you eat? What did you wear? Did you get any tattoos? Where did you sleep? What was the weather like? How did you clean your clothes in the field? Where did you shower?”
Allocco said that another frequently asked question concerns what troops carried in the field. “The kids don’t think of all the things one must carry when there is no other way to have what you need,” he said. “You don’t just walk out into the forest with a bottle of water. On some missions we slept in rice paddies. We stole chickens to eat.”
Macaluso tells them that everyone carried different equipment. “The grunt carried the most because he not only carried personal weapons and ammo but also had to carry ammo and weapons, plus parts, for the higher-ups.” Lenyk adds that it was different for everyone in many ways. “What you did, what you ate, what you carried depended on when you were in Vietnam, what your job was, where you were in the country,” he said. “There was the Iron Triangle, the Ia Drang, the Central Highlands.”
Macaluso says that the kids, who are used to instant feedback through social media, get a kick out of hearing about snail mail. The troops got letters about every three weeks, he says. They often got several at one time so the sender was asked to number them chronologically.
And of course, kids want to ask, “Did you kill anyone?” Each speaker handles this question in his own way. For Allocco, “All topics are open except the killing of people.” Peck says that he always reserves the right not to answer a question or certain topics.
Lenyk answers this question more fully, depending on the age of the students. For middle school kids, he tells them, “In a firefight you do not know if you hit anyone or not. The enemy took bodies away instantly so you couldn’t go find out. Westmoreland had made this a war of attrition so the Viet Cong didn’t want Americans to know how many dead there were.” For high school students, he says, “Yes, but it is with consequences. You live with the guilt the rest of your life. The only justification is that they were trying to kill me.”
Kids often think it’s cool, but he tells them it is not. Lenyk tells students that in Vietnam every day was about survival. Lenyk had survivor guilt even while in Vietnam.
Two other important subjects are Agent Orange and PTSD. Allocco’s experience is that the students have heard of Agent Orange but know nothing about it. “Agent Orange,” Macaluso says, “is the gift that keeps on giving.” He and Peck tell the kids that people did not have to be in battles or didn’t even have to be in Vietnam to be exposed to Agent Orange and the other Rainbow Agents. These chemicals were stored at bases in the U.S. The chemicals used in warfare, such as Agent Orange, have far-reaching effects, including the rare brain cancer that Sen. John McCain has now. Peck was exposed in Germany at least twice and paid for it with cancer.
Allocco tells the students that Roundup weed killer contains many of the same chemicals. “Multiply that by thousands,” he tells them.
The students also have heard of PTSD but know little about it. To explain PTSD, Allocca uses firemen, police, and first responders as examples. Macaluso asks if anyone in the class has a relative who was in Vietnam or Iraq, Afghanistan, or other areas of war. “Your relative could have PTSD,” he says. He tells them about how firecrackers and other triggers can set off a PTSD episode. Lenyk says he survived Vietnam twice: in-country and at home later. “Drinking and drugs were the panaceas for many,” he said. “Those seeming panaceas not only do not work, they make it all worse.”
Peck has a different aspect of PTSD to tell the students. He was diagnosed with PTSD, not from the military, but because of a ferocious civilian assault years later. He feels it’s important to let students know that PTSD can be caused by many things in life having nothing to do with being in the military.
Denial that anything is wrong is a large component of PTSD, but new traumas can cause earlier ones to suddenly reappear. Peck tells the kids that veterans today, like veterans from Vietnam, say, “‘This pain and mental anguish is nothing, I can handle it.’ Years later, though, it can emerge and leave them ragged and wondering what the hell happened.” He tells them, “You must use denial during trauma or you are left unprotected and vulnerable. But you will have your day of reckoning with your past experiences. The military pounds it into people that ‘It don’t mean nothin’.’ But it does. Troops are told, ‘Keep on going, don’t think about it.’ Good advice in the middle of trauma,” he says, “not so much later. Nobody wants others to think they are vulnerable. In the military people must appear to be invincible. Then one day you stop for a second, and it all falls on you again with a force that can’t be ignored.”
Peck is proud of VVA for the work the organization has achieved. “What VVA has done is immeasurable,” he says. “They have opened doors to understanding, acknowledging PTSD, TBI, and chemical exposure, things that affect not only vets, but anyone.”
Many students ask about bigotry during the Vietnam War. “Comrades became a brotherhood of shared experiences that were unique,” Peck tells them. “They depended on one another for their very lives. They shared terror, boredom, and laughter in tight situations. There was no racism in the field.
Even if you didn’t carry a gun you are in a brotherhood with those you served. Even with the Sand Box guys there is a bond, a brotherhood between us and them. Friends come and go but guys you spent years with, sleeping, eating, working, learning about their families, makes a bond that never breaks. You have bonds with people you would never have met otherwise, people nothing like yourself.
There are common experiences among veterans that no one else can understand. Comrades became a brotherhood of shared experiences that were unique. They depended on one another for their very lives.”
To help kids understand the brotherhood of Vietnam veterans, Lenyk, who studied anthropology, talks of tribes, motorcycle groups, and sports teams. He asks who plays soccer, hockey, or football and tells them, “You fight together toward a goal. What each man does bears on the next one. You are one unit. After the fight you pat each other’s backs and hug.”
Allocco said, “Talking about all this is good for vets. It’s like free therapy.”
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