Veterans visit the School Without Walls as students begin in depth study of the Vietnam War

September 23, 2013

Every year the School Without Walls collectively studies a topic of compelling political, social and educational significance. Last year, the entire school read Elie Wiesel’s Night as part of a larger exploration of the Holocaust. As part of the community component, local Holocaust survivors visited to tell their stories.

Jerry McDermott, Joe Peck, Chuck Macaluso, Gino Lenyk, Valentino Gatto

This year the school is reading Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried as an avenue for comprehending the Vietnam War and its aftermath. Last week, local veterans visited to share their memories and start the conversation.  As Principal Dr. Idonia Owens explains, “Many of our students have relatives who were in ‘Vietnam’, but don’t know anything about what it means.”  As students gain historical, interpretive and experiential knowledge, Idonia expects they will better understand the veterans in their communities.

Elaborating on the school’s philosophy, Idonia adds, “We are fortunate here at SWW that we have the opportunity to delve deeply into subjects, connect with the larger community, and bring history to life.” By the time the students complete the project, in addition to meeting the veterans, they will have toured the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial Park in Highland Park, seen the Vietnam War exhibit center at the Rundel library, learned the historical background through a range of written and visual sources, read actual letters from Vietnam Veterans, memorialized individual deceased veterans by reverently tying yellow ribbons to a pole in the commons area, prepared photos for a gallery walk, and written a literary analysis based on a critical lens and The Things They Carried.

When the five Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter # 20 men came on Tuesday for the project kick-off, during the full group presentations the students were fully respectful and attentive. Selected student ambassadors shared lunch with the veterans, allowing the opportunity for more personal connection. In the short sessions, the men could only begin to  cover the complex topic. But, in their enthusiasm and accessibility, the men provided students with real faces to attach to long ago historical events. And, the vets also drew many laughs with timeless tales about young men on R&R leave for the first time in exotic locales like Japan, the Philippines, or Australia (and perhaps not always behaving like perfect choir boys.)

The chapter’s President Valentino Gatto’s story was the most compelling. During basic training in Carson, Colorado, he seriously injured his back, and was unable to go overseas. At first, Valentino felt guilty. But his next assignment eased his regret. He was sent to a chapel at the Fitzsimon General Hospital in Denver to minister to the most physically and psychologically damaged soldiers returning from Vietnam. Many of the men had lost one or multiple limbs. Others were without hands. Some were blinded; some had grievous facial wounds and could not speak. Depression was commonplace. It was Valentino’s job to write letters home for the men, to convey to their loved ones that, despite their devastating injuries, they hadn’t given up. His life forever changed, Valentino realized he was doing his duty as much as his comrades on the front lines.

Valentino at luncheon

This year’s project has particular personal significance to two SWW teachers. Social Studies teacher Windsor Asamoah-Wade was himself a veteran, having served with the 173rd Airborne Brigade as an infantryman in 1971. Of all the books and movies on the war, The Things They Carried touched him the most. Most of what O’Brien wrote about Windsor experienced; “I read his book many years ago and got to hear him speak two years ago at the University of Rochester Interfaith Chapel on a cold and rainy October night. The audience was filled with men like myself forty years removed from the beauty and the horror which Vietnam gave us.”

Windsor believes reading the book, and the community based activities the students will experience, should give them a new perspective on an historical event they have only come to know as a subject in American History class. Windsor eloquently concludes, “So after the students finish this community read project, when they see me walking in the hallways they will a very different understanding of me, their teacher who at the age of 20 was drafted and sent to fight in the jungles and rice paddies of a country on the other side of the world.”

School social worker Tom Soule brings to the project a different perspective. During the war, Tom became a conscientious objector on religious grounds. When Tom was about 16, a youth minister made him aware of the conscientious objector draft status, and emphasized that anyone would need to be sincere in his beliefs if he chose to express these while standing before the draft board in a hearing. Tom began to more often think about the violence of war and determined that killing was not something in which he felt he could participate. Tom ended up doing his alternative service at the Hillside Children’s Center where he developed a lifelong passion for working with young people. Looking back, Tom feels blessed with being forced to examine his beliefs very closely at a young age. During the project, Tom has been willing and available to discuss his own moral journey.

So far, the students are excited by the project.  For example, Tom and Shavon want to learn about the real nitty-gritty of what the soldiers went through.  At the same time, they are formulating deeper, probing questions.  Shavon wants to find out if it was really worth going to war. Reflecting that the American homeland was never threatened, Tom wonders, “Because losing the war was not actually going to end the United States, did the veterans really believe passionately in the cause.” In a question fitting for SWW, Tom asks, “Why were so many underprivileged minorities sent to combat while wealthy individuals were able to get a pass?”

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