Vietnam Veterans of America
Some say the Vietnam War is so far behind us that today’s young people have little or no interest in those years, or in the people who lived through them. VVA Chapter 1008 in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, is conducting a thriving program of educational outreach that says different.
In the July/August 2014 issue of The VVA Veteran, I reported on a then newly launched Chapter 1008 initiative, which sent some of its members to two area high schools to conduct panel discussions about the Vietnam War. The nascent program leveraged personal stories of Vietnam veterans with ample opportunities for students to ask questions, in hopes of bringing context and depth to what students read in textbooks or heard in lectures, and to humanize the war by hearing from its veterans.
Initial feedback from students and teachers was positive. John Hoober, Chapter 1008’s Education Committee chair, was relieved. He had participated in an earlier event (not a Chapter 1008 activity) that excited him about the potential of school-based panel presentations—but also demonstrated what not to do. “One guy went into detail about his recreational drug use in Vietnam,” he said. “Another rambled on with a disjointed story that denied other vets a chance to speak or students an opportunity to ask questions. It was a disaster. The basic idea behind the panel was great, but I knew there had to be a better way.”
Hoober, working with the Education Committee and with the support of Chapter 1008 leadership, found that better way. The chapter’s educational outreach effort was built from the start around a clearly defined goal: Bring students a greater awareness of the Vietnam War through the voices of the era’s veterans, delivered through structured discussions focused on student questions.
“We wanted to avoid a random bunch of personal stories,” Hoober said. “A group of vets can always show up and tell interesting stories, but that squeezes out the students. The kids are the reason we’re doing these programs, and we knew it would be their questions that keep it relevant for them.”
Now in its seventh year, Chapter 1008’s education outreach has been extraordinarily successful, reaching thousands of students in seventeen school districts in a county of some nine hundred square miles. The effort has been covered by local newspapers and television, and the chapter has received more than five thousand letters of appreciation from students and their teachers.
“This has gone far beyond what any of us expected when we kicked off with two presentations in 2013,” Hoober said. He had hoped to mount five presentations the next school year—but did six. Then ten. Then fifteen. “Last year we made more than twenty school visits,” Hoober noted. “We’re on track to make as many as thirty-two presentations in 2019-20.”
In the program’s first few years Hoober actively canvassed schools. Now the schools come to him. The exponential growth in demand has put Hoober’s old Army logistical and planning skills to work. (He served in Vietnam with the Army’s 1st Logistical Command.) “Managing three or four school visits was one thing, but scheduling twenty or more calls for careful planning.”
The increasing number of schools scheduled for presentations has been met by a commensurate increase in chapter members interested in serving on panels. “We’re fortunate that our members represent all service branches,” Hoober said. “We have guys who saw heavy combat with the Marines and others who served in support roles in the Army, or on Navy ships, or were in Germany, or stateside during the war. We have a former Army nurse (Deb Dailey, the wife of Chapter President Bill Dailey), and always get her perspective, not just on being a nurse in the Army but on women in the military.
“And we always talk about Agent Orange. We make sure the kids understand what AO is, why it was used, and the impact it’s had on the postwar lives of thousands of vets. We want the kids to learn how the costs of war don’t stop with battlefield injuries and deaths, and that many vets bear the burdens for years to come.”
Hoober moderates the panel discussions, opening the events and establishing the tone for the thoughtful discussion to follow. “I start with a few words about the mission of VVA, and then I ask how many students have visited The Wall. For those who have, I ask what thoughts or emotions they came away with.”
After panelists speak for a few minutes, Hoober opens the floor to student questions. “We get a lot of the same questions, of course. What was it like to be shot at? Did you kill anybody? But we get other questions, too, sometimes unexpected ones. One young woman asked if our faith kept us going in dark moments. Another kid asked if any of us did brig time. I wasn’t sure which panelist should answer that question.”
Questions are not only about the war itself, Hoober said. “Kids ask about the 1960s, political unrest, an unpopular war, what it was like to come home to an unwelcoming country. Warren Kimmel, our ex-president, is excellent in speaking about those elements in the history.”
Accompanying the presentations is a wide-ranging display of Vietnam War artifacts, mostly from the personal collections of chapter members—photo albums, letters, medals, unit patches, badges, dog tags, and souvenirs. With the help of a collector of Vietnam War memorabilia, the traveling display also includes field equipment and even weaponry. After presentations and Q&A sessions, students look at the displays and can speak individually with panelists and other chapter members attending the events.
Sharing Personal Experiences
”I think a major aspect of our success is that we don’t make speeches,” Hoober said. “We don’t espouse any fixed ideas about the war, pro or con. Members might offer their opinions, but nobody comes with an argument to make. We share personal experiences and keep it focused on the kids and what they want to talk about.”
Chapter 1008’s current challenge is meeting an ever-growing demand to schedule new sessions. “Have we maxed out the number of schools we can visit? I don’t know,” Hoober said. “Requests keep coming in. We’ll probably add a couple of private schools in the county next year. Then go from there.”
Rolled into this challenge is another—the aging of Vietnam War veterans. The chapter recently lost one of its most popular panelists, retired Navy Command Master Chief Bob Ruble. “Bobby was a wonderful storyteller,” Hoober said. “He was very popular at our presentations. The kids loved him. His loss reminds us all that we are a finite group. We cannot be replaced.”
But for now and the foreseeable future, Chapter 1008 and its education committee have no plans of cutting back. Reiterating his, and the chapter’s, surprise at the runaway popularity of their panel discussions, Hoober said that “none of this could happen without our dynamic education committee and the chapter’s unwavering support. There are so many people who deserve thanks: chapter leadership, our terrific panelists, and the entire membership. I wish you could list everybody’s name.”
The real story of the Vietnam Era is that there is no one story, no single narrative. It was a war with many fronts, abroad and at home, and is now heard through the voices of men and women who experienced that history in many ways, from many vantage points. Chapter 1008’s educational outreach program embodies this range and complexity as it transmits the history—and perhaps some of the lessons—of the war and its times to younger generations.
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