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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
Bloods (1984) by Wallace Terry--by far the best book about
African-Americans in the Vietnam War told very effectively in oral-history
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
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
In Pharoah's Army (1994) by Tobias Wolff--a revealing, literary
Vietnam War memoir by a former U.S. Army Special Forces sergeant.
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
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
"We have 15 or 16 members in our chapter who speak," Hall said.
"Our chapter had speakers for 600 hours in those schools last
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
"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
"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,’ "
"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
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
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
"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
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
"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."