By Jordan Larabee
In 1965, the first U.S. combat troops landed in Vietnam, prepared to offer themselves for the solution to the urgent issue of the spread of communism that marked the latter half of the 20th century as a time of intense paranoia and tension between the government and the people. The soldiers deployed in Vietnam, averaging just 22 years old, experienced horrible conditions fighting an extremely determined and brutal enemy. The use of booby traps and secretive tunnels were widespread, and erratic weather left many sick and unengaged in the surprise attacks conducted by the enemy. The guerilla fighters of the Viet Cong were indistinguishable from the common citizens of Vietnam, mentally exhausting the soldiers and leaving them in a constant state of paranoia towards those they were meant to be helping.
At the conclusion of the war a total of 58,318 soldiers had given up their lives; 153,303 who had been wounded in action, 1,590 men were declared missing, and lastly, 778 more service members were detained as prisoners of war. The average age of killed soldiers was merely 23 years.
Despite the sacrifices made by the men and women who gave themselves up for the greater good of the country during this conflict, the home front was not in a position to kindly receive the soldiers who were able to return home. Christian G. Appy effectively summarizes this treatment in his book, Working-Class War: American Combat Soldiers and Vietnam. “Some protesters simply did not make a clear distinction between the war and those who fought it, and they regarded American soldiers as ready and willing killers or ignorant dupes.” This inability to distinguish the individuals who served from those who were in charge created an atmosphere of anger towards the soldiers. Insults and criticism pushed many veterans into a mindset opposed to sharing their stories and experiences. Adjusting back into life as a civilian as if nothing had occurred was extremely difficult for many of those who risked their lives.
Tim O’Brien was one of the men who served in the Vietnam war. He was also one of the men who returned home damaged in some way, not just physically but emotionally as well. For O’Brien, storytelling was an effective coping mechanism for the horrors he experienced. In his book, The Things They Carried, each chapter is its own unique story, meshing together into a narrative that is made to enable the understanding of the toll combat has on the young men of the Alpha Company. In this, O’Brien gives life to the people who have died, which is utilized as a method of giving those who have died a voice, effectively letting them live forever through a story. “But in story, I can steal her soul. I can revive, at least briefly, that which is absolute and unchanging. In a story miracles can happen,” O’Brien notes.
At Mendham High School, the junior English teachers recognized the power of O’Brien’s book and implemented it into a unit plan for the entire junior class to read together, regardless of academic level. Now, every student at Mendham will be exposed to this work, not only for its value as a renowned piece of literature, but also for the respect it garners for those who served for our country. The lessons one can learn through reading this book extend past war and dealing with loss. They teach a new appreciation for the men and women serving, while simultaneously showing the value of service to others that the students have learned to apply to their daily lives in their interactions with people.
After the adoption of this book into the curriculum, the students and teachers were dedicated to finding a way to display the appreciation they hold for our troops. As a result, the school was able to work with Operation Gratitude, an organization established in 2003 with the goal of offering a way of saying, “thank you” to veterans through sending out care packages and letters. On January 21st, the teachers put together care packages for soldiers and veterans and over the past two weeks the students wrote thank you letters to our service men and women. These letters will be sent to soldiers who will greatly appreciate the recognition and respect everyone at Mendham demonstrated.
As a continuation of the unit on the Vietnam war, and in partnership with the NJ Veterans Network, Mendham was able to host Vietnam veterans and allow them the chance to tell their stories as they pleased, as well as take questions from students and staff. Bob Johnson was one of the Veterans willing to come to tell his story. Bob was a former combat engineer, tasked with building roads, airfields, and camps, as well as the destruction of enemy roads, airfields, and camps. He outlined his motivation for going to Vietnam to serve, as he believed he was doing what was right, doing his part to slow the dispersion of Communism. “We were just trying to keep our people safe. Their people too. We knew they were under a brutal regime,” he said in the presentation to the students. Overall, it was incredibly powerful and beneficial to the understanding of the extent to which war can change a person. The effects of war and the years of healing Bob Johnson endured, as well as that of Tim O’Brien and his work in The Things They Carried give insight into what it is truly like to live carrying the weight of experiences so terrible and demonstrate the importance of offering support for these people.
The unit will culminate beyond the book when Mendham hosts an event called Feed the Heroes on March 15th at Mendham High School. “We invite all from the community to attend, but especially any and all veterans. The event will be free for veterans. From 6:30 to 7:15, a World War II veteran will be in the auditorium to tell their story of service to our country. This will be followed by a dinner for the veterans and is a great way to show our community’s support for our heroes. We encourage you to invite any veterans you know; Formal Invitations and RSVPs will be sent out shortly. We look forward to celebrating many of our service members.” English teacher, Alyssa Shannon, said.