Veteran's lessons give students new view of Vietnam

November 11, 1990|By Diane Winston | Diane Winston,Sun Staff Correspondent

COLLEGE PARK -- Before Stephanie Stoughton enrolled in Honors 318a, her image of a Vietnam veteran was based on the pot-smoking, banjo-strumming, baby-killing soldiers she'd seen in movies like "Hamburger Hill" and "Platoon."

But six weeks into a course on "America and Vietnam," the 22-year-old University of Maryland senior has a whole new picture of the men and women who shipped out to Southeast Asia.

So different is her take now on the oft-trashed troops that Ms. Stoughton plans to spend today honoring Vietnam veterans.

"I just wanted a chance to honor the vets," said Ms. Stoughton, who will be representing Honors 318a in the Veterans Day services at the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington today. "I wanted to let them know my generation appreciates what they did -- not what the politicians or the senior military did -- but what the veterans did."

Ms. Stoughton's distinction between the war and the warriors was lost on thousands of U.S. citizens who reviled veterans returning from Vietnam. Symbols of a war that had become a national embarrassment, veterans were shunned and cast aside. Some became embittered; others went mad. Still others fought back.

Philip Straw fought back by insisting that the lessons of the past inform the future. "America in Vietnam," a University of Maryland seminar on the political, social and cultural history of the war, is his weapon.

"What's the reason why I do this? There are 58,000 reasons why," said Mr. Straw, referring to the number of U.S. servicemen killed during the Vietnam War.

"We owe it to the families of the men and women who served in Vietnam to understand the past as these young men and women prepare for the future," he said.

Mr. Straw, who wears a Purple Heart on his blue suit lapel, avows the highest principles. He is not pushing a platform, advocating an agenda, or revising the record. He simply wants to stimulate young people to think -- and to understand.

He readily admits he's not an educator.

"I am a federal employee," said the lanky and bespectacled ex-Marine. "My wife was taking courses here and out of curiosity I would leaf through the catalog looking for a class on Vietnam that would examine how we got into that tragic war.

"When I couldn't find a course like that, I mentioned it to a friend of mine who worked [at the university]. He said, 'Why don't you teach it?' "

Mr. Straw -- whose only teaching experience had been in Sunday school classes and on basketball courts -- accepted the challenge. Since 1985, he's exposed 20 students annually to the books and videos, commanders and common folk who made August 1964 to April 1973 one of the more controversial epochs of U.S. history.

"We try to sort through the issues tied to the war," said Mr. Straw, who said he checks his own opinions at the classroom door. "We look at the issues of America's role in the world, presidential decision-making, Congress' role, dissent and the treatment of vets after World War II as compared to Vietnam.

"This is a turbulent and confusing time in history. My goal is to walk the class through the issues -- not so they can reach conclusions but so they can begin to think."

To walk his charges through the minefields of the Vietnam era, Mr. Straw uses various ploys. He has a long reading list supplemented by videotapes about the period. He requires students to survey people over 40 on where they were in 1968. He invites guest speakers to class -- Presidents Richard M. Nixon and Gerald R. Ford, presidential candidate George S. McGovern, who ran unsuccessfully on a platform of ending the war, and Gen. William Westmoreland, commander of U.S. forces in Vietnam, have all come -- and he sends students, at his own expense, to interview principal players around the country.

For Veterans Day, Mr. Straw instructed class members to find a veteran whom they could bring to class and honor.

Jennifer Moriatis, a senior from Baltimore, found a family friend who had served as a helicopter pilot.

"He started telling me about his experiences, and then he really opened up and told me what he saw and what it taught him," said Ms. Moriatis, whose own father had ended his military career rather than re-enlist for duty in Vietnam. "When he came back, he had a lot of questions. He thought the government had screwed up, and he didn't know why we were there."

Although a slight majority of the class said they were dovish about the war, a strong minority defended it.

Jim Allingham, who at 52 is the senior member of the class, spent two years in Vietnam fighting with the Marine Corps. Retired from the military, Mr. Allingham is tooling up for a career in criminal justice.

"I knew very well what was going on as far as the fighting aspect," said Mr. Allingham, noting that few people wanted to discuss the war when he returned home from Southeast Asia. "But I didn't understand how the whole thing occurred, why we had to lose, and why everyone was so bitter."

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