A publication of Vietnam Veterans of America, Inc. ®
An organization chartered by the U.S. Congress

April 2001/May 2001

The Lessons of Vietnam

Ron Dyches: Teaching The Vietnam War

By Jim Belshaw

Ron Dyches asked the 36 students in his sixth period Bloomingdale (Florida) High School world history class if anyone in their immediate families had served in Southeast Asia. More than half the class raised a hand.

He asked how many had ever sat down and talked to that Vietnam veteran about what he or she went through.

All the hands went down.

"Not one," the retired Army officer said. "It didn't surprise me. Vietnam veterans don't talk about it. After class, one boy walked up to me and said, `My father was in the Navy, but he never talked about what he went through and I know he went through some bad stuff.' So I gave him a book to read about riverine operations, and he went home and talked to his father and it opened up a dialogue. That was four years ago."

In 1995, when Dyches retired from a career in the Army and began teaching in the Valrico, Florida, school, an assistant principal asked him to give some thought to constructing an elective class that could be added to the offerings.

He found it in the Vietnam War.

"When I wrote the curriculum, I started it off in 1919 because that's when Ho Chi Minh was in France during the Treaty of Versailles, and he attempted to represent the Vietnamese

people," he said. "Because he was rebuffed by the major allies, he looked elsewhere, toward Moscow, and Lenin invited him there."

The first nine weeks of the traditional class schedule takes the students to 1964 and the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. From there, they continue to the present day.

Dyches uses a library of videotapes and a collection of 180 songs from the Vietnam era.

"It's music their parents might have listened to or they've heard on the radio themselves but never listened to the lyrics," he said. "We play the songs and have the kids interpret what the artist is trying to say."

About once a week, he brings in Vietnam veterans.

"These guys went for so long without anybody wanting to hear anything about what happened to them, and now all of a sudden the door has been opened at a high school and there are people who want to hear their stories," he said. "That's powerful stuff. With these kids, you have a generation of Americans with no preconceived ideas about Vietnam. Sometimes Vietnam is not talked about in families because the kids may be two generations removed from it. Now they're learning about the war their grandfathers fought in and their parents lived through as young adults."

When putting together the curriculum, Dyches connected with Tom Hall of VVA Chapter 787. Hall was new to the area, but not to the idea of bringing Vietnam veterans to schools. He'd been involved in a similar program in Kansas City.

Dyches said the veterans who come to his class are nothing less than what all historians covet.

"The guys are primary source documents," he said. "You have grunts, Marines, Air Force, Army, Navy, helicopter pilots, children of veterans, children of MIAs presumed dead--the kids

get them all. We have a couple of ex-POWs who come in and, if you can imagine it, try to explain six and a half years of their lives in 55 minutes to a classroom of high school kids."

Open to juniors and seniors, the class began with 72 students the first year. Last year, more than 800 enrolled. At Bloomingdale High, the elective is so popular that it fills up and closes out quickly every year. Dyches said many students not enrolled in the class ask to participate in some of the activities. Often, students who already who have taken the class return to take part in class projects.

The course now counts as one of the social studies electives required to graduate from high school in Florida. It is locally taught in Hillsborough County, but next October Dyches said he

and others will present a seminar to the Florida Council of Social Studies to expand the offering to as many as 15 other Florida counties.

"I've put together nearly 700 pages of lesson plans," Dyches said. "The whole thing is packaged so if a guy is going to teach the class, he'll have a complete set of all the lesson plans I

use, a complete set of the music and lyrics, and 12 hours of videotape we use to supplement the class."

An oral history program grew from the veterans' weekly appearances that in some cases saw sons and daughters writing the histories of fathers on subjects that had never before been discussed.

"Last year, when we did the awards ceremony, there wasn't a dry eye in the house," Dyches said. "You're talking about people in their 70s coming down to meet 16-year-olds on a stage. A

Vietnam veteran is meeting two students who carry a rose and a copy of this book and all they say to him is `Welcome home.' You sit there and think, `My God, this is so powerful.’ "

Dyches said the benefits of such encounters in the classroom or out of it run in both directions.

"I saw it last year on one guy in particular," he said. "He wanted to meet me so I could look at his file to be sure I knew where he was coming from before he talked to the students. Here

was a guy who was very apprehensive about sitting down with four students to tell them his story for the oral history project. Then, a year later, this guy stands up in front of 72 kids and

talks to them like he's been doing it forever. You better believe it makes a difference in these guys' lives."

Even more than the veterans’ appearances and oral histories, Dyches said one event touches everyone like no other--The Moving Wall.

 

"I had one veteran walk up to The Wall, and he became quite emotional," Dyches said. "He turned to one of my students, and he said, `Do you see what this did to my generation of Americans? For God's sake, don't let it happen to yours.’ "

When The Moving Wall comes to the area, Dyches doesn't simply have the students walk by it. He has them engage it, preparing exercises so each student might do more than just read a name.

The year before last, each student was given the names of three veterans. Students did rubbings of the names and read biographical sketches in order to find out what the veterans had in common.

"The first time the commonality was that all the veterans were 19 when they died, and they all died on the same day," Dyches said. "Last year the commonality was that all the men who died

were born on the same day as the student. I told the kids that from now on they'd remember those men on every birthday, and those guys would live forever through it."

Dyches asks his students to sit back away from The Wall and watch the people who approach it, especially the older ones. He told his students that in many cases, they are looking for a son.

"Two years ago, I had one student go up to an elderly couple," he said. "They were trying to find where to go and this 16-year-old student walked up to them and said, `Sir, let me take

you to your son.' You can't teach that in a classroom. You just can't. I am so glad that six years ago somebody asked me to teach an elective."

Significant Books On Vietnam

By Marc Leepson

From middle school to graduate school, the books students read are a crucial component of Vietnam War history classes. Thousands of books, fiction and nonfiction, have been written on virtually every aspect of the war. What follows is an annotated list of some of the most popular and useful books for teaching the war.

HISTORY

America's Longest War (1979) by George Herring--a concise, well-written, objective history of the Vietnam War by a respected historian. It is widely used in college Vietnam War history classes.

Vietnam: A History (1983) by Stanley Karnow--a long, detailed history of the Indochina wars. While not footnoted, this is a good introduction to the entire subject for the general reader. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize.

A Bright, Shining Lie (1988) by Neil Sheehan--perhaps the best look at American participation in the war in the early and mid 1960s. It also tells the amazing life story of the legendary American Army Col. John Paul Vann. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize.

On Strategy (1982) by Col. Harry G. Summers, Jr.--widely used in college courses, this is a critical analysis of the American military's strategy by a former infantry colonel.

MEMOIRS AND PERSONAL STORIES

A Rumor of War (1977) by Philip Caputo--an enduring, honest look at the war through the eyes of a particularly perceptive former Marine lieutenant.

If I Die in a Combat Zone (1973) by Tim O'Brien--a novel-like memoir in which O'Brien examines his Vietnam War experience as a infantry rifleman.

Fortunate Son (1991) by Lewis B. Puller, Jr.--the Pulitzer-Prize winning autobiography of a Marine lieutenant who was severely wounded in the Vietnam War.

Bloods (1984) by Wallace Terry--by far the best book about African-Americans in the Vietnam War told very effectively in oral-history format.

Dispatches (1978) by Michael Herr--an impressionistically told tale that emphasizes the surreal nature of Vietnam War combat.

Brothers in Arms (1985) by William Broyles--a well-told and memorable story by a former Marine lieutenant of his Vietnam War tour and his trip back in 1984.

Home Before Morning (1983) by Lynda Van Devanter--a strongly written look at the life of an Army nurse before, during, and after the Vietnam War.

We Were Soldiers Once and Young (1992) by Gen. Hal Moore and Joe Galloway--a vividly written recreation of the momentous 1965 Battle of the Ia Drang.

Winners and Losers (1976) by Gloria Emerson--the first book that examined in detail the war's effects on those who fought and their families as well as those in the antiwar movement. Winner of the National Book Award.

Patches of Fire (1997) by Albert French--a novelistic look at an African-American former Marine's Vietnam War tour of duty and postwar experiences.

In Pharoah's Army (1994) by Tobias Wolff--a revealing, literary Vietnam War memoir by a former U.S. Army Special Forces sergeant.

FICTION

Going After Cacciato (1978) and The Things They Carried (1990) by Tim O'Brien. The former is an in-country tale told in magical realism style. It won the National Book Award. The latter is a more conventional but equally evocative telling of in-the-trenches war stories.

Paco's Story (1987) and Close Quarters (1977) by Larry Heinemann. The latter is a memorable story of an infantryman's year in the war zone; the former tells the painful story of a severely wounded and psychologically damaged Vietnam veteran. It won the National Book Award

The Alleys of Eden (1981) and A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain (1992) by Robert Olen Butler. The former is a well realized story of a GI and his strange escape from Vietnam in April 1975; the latter is a series of first-person short stories, each told in the voice of a Vietnamese expatriate in the United States. It won the Pulitzer Prize.

Fatal Light (1985) by Richard Currey--a short, strong story about the war and postwar experiences of a man who served, as the author did, as a Navy corpsman with the U.S. Marines in Vietnam.

In Country (1985) by Bobbie Ann Mason--the story of a teen-aged girl and her quest to find out details about her father who was killed in Vietnam before she was born. Perhaps the best fictional portrait about the war's effects on family members and veterans.

Tom Hall: Opening Lines of Communication in Florida

By Jim Belshaw

Tom Hall's rationale is straightforward and to the point: "We're the ones who made the history."

When he moved to Florida from Kansas City in 1997, Chapter 787 was less than a year old. Hall had been involved in a speakers bureau in Kansas City and had participated in formal presentations to schools. The program worked well, and he suggested that the new Florida chapter consider doing something similar.

In the summer of 1998, he met Ron Dyches, who the year before had put together an elective high school history course on the Vietnam War. Hall gave Dyches all the resource material he had.

That fall, Vietnam veterans began appearing at the school.

"We went in as a panel at first," Hall said. "Then I said, `With what you're trying to do, we need to bring in speakers once a week from the chapter.’ And that what's we started doing."

Late in the semester that same year, another teacher, Bruce Burnham, came to Hall and asked for help in keeping the course alive. Word had come from the Florida state education department that for reasons Hall said are still unclear today, someone wanted the course killed. Hall said the reason given, insufficient enrollment, was not supported by enrollment figures.

Hall met with school officials and with the VVA Florida State Council president. He contacted other chapters and veterans organizations, urging them to write or call the department of education and demand that the course remain in the curriculum.

"They got so much e-mail and so many letters and telephone calls that they rescinded the decision in ten days," Hall said.

"There's something like a million veterans down here [in Florida] and I think with that population, they [the education department] would have been cutting their own throats. We defeated them."

Nine high schools teach the elective class today in Hillsborough County. Hall coordinates speakers at the chapter level when the school makes requests.

"We have 15 or 16 members in our chapter who speak," Hall said. "Our chapter had speakers for 600 hours in those schools last year."

Hall said the resultant publicity from the speakers bureau has become a recruiting tool for Chapter 787. Veterans discover the chapter through the speaker program and then find out about the other chapter community activities.

"Some of these veterans join the chapter so they can go out and talk in the schools," Hall said. "But we don't just throw anybody in there. Our policy is that we make sure they come up with a good presentation, give it to three or four of the speakers from the chapter, and we critique them. When we think they're ready, we'll turn them loose. But usually I accompany them to the school and see how they do."

Hall said some moments are difficult for the speakers. While some of the questions are to be expected--Have you shot anybody? Have you killed anybody?--most involve living conditions and the veterans’ thoughts on the unpopularity of the war and war protesters.

Frequently, Hall said, children of Vietnam veterans will come to him after the class and say that they finally understood why fathers feel the way they do about the war or why grandfathers don't want to talk about it.

"You share that information with them," Hall said. "And what happens is the student goes home and says, `Hey, Dad, I'm taking this course and we had this speaker come in. He talked about this and this and this, and it was the same time you were there and about the same location. Can you tell me more about that?’

"All of a sudden you've opened a line of communication between the Vietnam veteran and his child. And that's something you can't replace. I know it's happened for a fact."

Hall, who served in the Marine Corps for 11 years, said some moments in the classroom become emotional for himself and the students. After one class in which Hall spoke about Agent Orange, a girl approached him. She had a picture of a Marine in his dress blues. She asked Hall if he knew him. He didn't.

"She said, 'That was my dad in Vietnam. He just died of Agent Orange cancer,’ " Hall said. "She started crying, and I started crying. It's that powerful. To me, it's critical for the chapters to get involved in this kind of thing. What better opportunity could we have to talk to students about the Vietnam War?"

He is confident that the students in the Vietnam War class have a good understanding of the times and the conflict brought about at home because of the war's unpopularity. "They've been well prepared, so when you come in, they're thinking, 'Okay, this guy's giving me a reality check,’ " he said.

"They want to know about it. In their normal history classes they don't cover it the way we can. They're amazed at the information the speakers give them. It's a personal thing. It humanizes the Vietnam War for them. I run into kids in the community who say they learned so much from the speakers. They say they'll remember what we've told them the rest of their lives. It touches them."

Hall serves on a VVA education subcommittee established at the 2000 Buffalo Leadership Conference and has just sent to committee members a draft of a national education guidebook designed to help in the establishment of speakers bureaus.

Like teacher Ron Dyches, Hall firmly believes that the benefits to be gained travel a two-way street--that veterans have as much to gain from the experience as the students.

"A lot of veterans don't realize it's therapy for them, too," he said. "If they're talking about it, they have to deal with it. One of our veterans joined during the beginning of the school year, and he'd had a real rough time through seven years of counseling. This guy has come around 180 degrees. He loves talking in these schools, and he is such an excellent speaker. His whole life has changed just by talking in the schools. I tell everybody I talk to that if we don't get involved in education about the Vietnam War, it's shame on us because we have a lot to offer."

 

Mike Gaffney Links VVA To The War

By Jim Belshaw

On VVA’s web page, www.vva.org, beneath a deceptively simple heading--"About the War"--lies an educational tool of remarkable breadth and depth. Click on it and the history of America's involvement in Vietnam opens up with more than seventy pages of Internet links to a wide variety of sources.

From the beginning--"The Context in Which the Indochina Wars Arose: Decolonization, the Cold War, and National Liberation Movements"--to the present day, the compilation of links covers virtually every aspect of the war and its impact on both Americans and Vietnamese.

Assembled by Vietnam veteran Mike Gaffney, who is VVA’s general counsel, the history began as an avocation.

"I have a fairly substantial collection of books about the war and I've done a lot of reading about it to understand it myself," he said.

Gaffney has been associated with VVA for several years working on legal matters. From time to time, he had suggested that VVA add a history section to its web page.

"I told them that folks cruising the Internet looking for something on the Vietnam War might see the page and think VVA had something on it," he said.

Gaffney had been just such a web surfer for many years, adding Vietnam War historical links to his private collection as he went along. He finished the project last October, a voluntary effort done simply because he wanted to.

"I wanted it to be comprehensive in the sense that when I looked around the Internet and saw Vietnam War sites, I saw some things in depth in one area and more limited in another," Gaffney said. "I was looking for something that went back to the beginning in terms of early American involvement and brought it up to the end, with some major topical exploration along the way."

Though nothing in a directed fashion has been done on the Internet to publicize the site, word of mouth has begun to make its presence known. Responses have come from high school and college history teachers who say the site holds a wealth of valuable information.

Gaffney gathered information from as many sources as possible, reflecting a wide variety of viewpoints, including Vietnamese--a decision frowned upon by a Gaffney friend who is a Vietnam veteran.

"He wanted to know why I had Vietnamese sources up there," Gaffney said. "I told him it was because they were part of the story. I think people will be interested in what is being thought and said and written from a Vietnamese perspective, rather than just the American view. There are pro-war sources in there and there are antiwar sources. The range of political opinion is all over the place."

Bennington Lectures: The War In Vermont

By Jim Belshaw

Four years ago, John Miner and Mokie Porter talked about ways Miner's VVA Chapter 601 could expand a scholarship program begun at a Bennington, Vt., high school. The program had grown to include high schools in two nearby towns, and Miner wanted other avenues to bring the teaching of the Vietnam War into educational institutions.

Porter, a Bennington College graduate and editor of The VVA Veteran, contacted a former professor who expressed enthusiasm for a lecture series connected to courses taught at the college.

In April, Vietnam Veterans Memorial archivist Duery Felton became the latest VVA Bennington lecturer. The series began with Fr. Phil Salois, who spoke on religion and the war.

Other lecturers have included Tom Corey, who spoke on the Veterans Initiative; VVA President George C. Duggins, who gave a presentation on minorities in wartime; and Ned Broderick, president of the National Vietnam Veterans Art Museum in Chicago.

"The response from the college has been great," Miner said. "George Duggins’ presentation was very well received at the college, and I have to tell you that I learned a ton from him. He went all the way back to the Civil War and included a terrific slide presentation. We had a great turnout of veterans from the community when Tom Corey spoke on the Veterans Initiative. The questions asked by the college students are always excellent. The lectures are free and open to the public, and it's worked very well."

The lecturers' travel and lodging expenses at the annual event are covered, but no fee is paid. The lecture series is funded by donations to Bennington College made by the chapter and by Porter.

Miner said the chapter is now attempting to expand its educational reach more into the high schools. Prior to his college lecture, Felton gave his Wall Archives presentation at the local high school.

Local veterans were on hand to answer questions after Felton's lecture. Miner hopes for more future appearances at the high school by the veterans themselves.

"There's a group in New Jersey that travels to high schools and displays artifacts from the war--items left at The Wall, that sort of thing," Miner said. "It's like a traveling museum. I'm trying to make the presentation by Duery a steppingstone for me to ask our high school to invite the New Jersey group in the fall."

   

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