Speaking to juniors at their alma mater, a pair of Vietnam veterans provided students both with historical perspective and a lesson more personal.
Chuck Smith and Tom Hoskins told a Cedar Springs High School history class of the war’s gritty realities, both the terrifying and mundane.
Smith, a U.S. Marines vet, told of a former Cedar Springs classmate who was drafted and killed in Vietnam.
“Trying to put things into perspective for you, he graduated in ’67, and was killed in ’67,” Smith told the class listening attentively. “You guys are juniors and seniors. Sixteen, 17, 18 years old. He wasn’t much older.”
U.S. Army veteran Hoskins recalled learning to work on tanks, and how historical flashpoints caused him to move around the world, from his training at Fort Knox to Europe and eventually to Vietnam.
Students in Sairah Ahmed’s class have studied the Vietnam War through textbooks, online research and recorded interviews with veterans. But having veterans in the classroom added a new layer of facts, and a more compelling side to the story than anything they could look up.
“When we read from the textbook, we’re taught all these things that happened,” junior Cary Hydes said. “But it seems so much more real (when) you hear someone talk about it.”
She and her study partner, Brandon Sawade, are researching the lives of soldiers in the war. Brandon asked Smith about daily life in Vietnam.
“Daily life in Vietnam was long periods of boredom punctuated by some intense adrenaline flow and firefight,” Smith said. Reading, playing spades and writing home helped kill the time. He celebrated his 20th birthday in the field.
“We were well-trained, but we became hardened very quickly,” he said. “War does that to a person. I was naive when I went into Vietnam. I had no realization of what I was getting into.
“You can go from being a very naive person to being someone who can take a life during a firefight, and go right back to lunch afterward.”
Night was the scariest time, when the imagination would turn bushes into enemies, Smith said. But mornings always came.
“We laughed there as well,” he said. “I left there with a great appreciation for sunrises and hot and cold running water.”
Learning Beyond Textbooks
Ahmed said she expects her students to do the work of historians, and having a primary source in the classroom encourages them to ask the right questions.
“All too often we page-turn through a textbook or other source and, while we can get a lot out of those sources, the minute we turn to the next chapter, the previous one seems to fade away,” Ahmed said. “Having real people in the classroom telling their story really seemed like the most logical way to snap out of that mentality and make history more alive.”
Brandon said textbooks can provide an overview, while Chuck and Tom described what conditions and moments were like.
“It really generalized the basic event and they couldn’t get into much detail, because they have so much to go through,” he said. “We got to hear personal stories from Chuck and Tom and their reactions as an individual.”
Local veterans’ stories can also put students’ own lives into perspective, Ahmed added.
“Listening to the vets’ stories was a powerful reminder of how quickly life can change,” she said. “One minute you are still considered a child and feel safe in the bubble of high school, and the next minute you get called to war.
“That hit home for many of my students.”
She added she is proud of the lesson and her students’ good questions.
“It got to the heart of why we study history, and how historians strive to tell other people’s stories with accuracy and sincerity.”