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September/October 2017

Teaching the War: Chapter 67’s
Long-Running School Program

PHOTO courtesy Jim Ulmer

Building a LegacyIn December 1983 Jim Ulmer of Delaware County, Pennsylvania, Chapter 67 went as a guest to a local high school to talk about the Vietnam War. Thirty-four years later Ulmer is still going to schools, except now he and his fellow veterans go to at least twelve high schools and colleges every year. Many were a little skeptical when they were approached by the veterans. Then St. Joseph’s Prep in Philadelphia, a top-notch school, invited Ulmer to talk to students. That invitation opened doors to all the schools that followed.

The veterans begin by introducing themselves: what branch of service they were in, where they’re from, where they were in Vietnam, and other biographical information. The chapter tries to include veterans from different branches so students can get a fuller picture. The veterans often bring artifacts: C-rations, knapsacks, helmets. Holding some of what soldiers carried in their hands can make distant facts more real for students.

Ulmer and his fellow veterans embrace technology that enhances their presentations. For example, talking to kids about something as alien as gunships or LZs can be confusing because the details are important—and there are many details. But seeing a photograph of a gunship or an LZ in Vietnam on a large screen enables students to see what is being discussed—and easier to imagine the fire and explosions, the frequent boredom, the fear, and the black humor.

The veterans from Chapter 67 use no war slang. They are careful not to dehumanize the people they fought. But the veterans explain that when one must fight, often to the death, it helps some people to dehumanize those you are fighting.

Technology isn’t the only thing that has changed since these talks began. In the ’80s there was an influx of Vietnamese to this country. One teacher asked, “Will you be able to deal with the Vietnamese students?” Ulmer answered, “Better than you do.” The Vietnamese students who came first were quiet and shy. Now, they like to talk to the veterans about where their parents or grandparents lived in Vietnam.

Students want to know how our own people of color were treated. The veterans tell them that it didn’t matter as long as you had someone’s back in the field. “We were brothers,” Ulmer said.

The Vietnam War did not have segregated units. Many white troops had never actually talked with a person of color, much less had their lives depend on one. Interaction with what they didn’t know transformed lives. In Vietnam, farm boys met teachers, ditch diggers met chefs, white collar workers met boys from the hood, and nearly all were changed by those interactions.

These talks are not history lessons about battles and politics. They are individual stories from which comes a broader understanding of Vietnam, of war, of hardship, and of brotherhood.

The one thing the veterans ask the teachers? Tell the students to avoid asking if they killed anyone. To most adolescents war and killing are distant adventures seen on TV or video games. Not so to veterans. They will discuss what everyday life was like in the tents and hootches, in the high mountains, the forests, the Delta, and the bases. They talk about daily life as an American fighting in Vietnam. They discuss the bugs, the heat, the food.

“Students are better equipped to deal with new veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan,” Ulmer said. “These talks not only help the students, they help the veterans. Talking about trauma, about experiences so unique that most people they talk to have never experienced them and never will, helps bring composure and a sort of wholeness to the speakers.”

After the talks by the veterans, entire classes come to shake their hands. Many of the students are awed. They come to the speakers afterward, thanking them for their service and for coming to their school to speak.

“The respect due to these veterans is given here,” Ulmer said.




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