The first day of class, instructor Phil Straw passes out course materials and included is a bookmark with a purple ribbon attached to it.
Initially, the students enrolled in "Honors 318: America in Vietnam" at the University of Maryland are perplexed. Then Straw explains: "Because so few of you are related to anyone who served in Vietnam, I felt that a means for personalizing the war was necessary and relevant. So each of you has been given a bookmark with the name of an individual killed in the war and listed on the memorial [in Washington]."
Little did Straw realize when he conceived this simple teaching aid, dubbed the "Best Friend" bookmark, the effect it would have on his students.
"As the semester moves along, I get around to telling the individual stories of the names on the bookmarks," Straw said. "But a lot of the kids beat me to it. They've gotten in touch with the families, learned more about their best friends and visited 'The Wall' to get tracings of the name off the memorial."
The instructor, a decorated (Bronze Star with V and Purple Heart) Marine officer in Vietnam, started the course in 1985 without any previous teaching experience. His motivation? The school had no offering delving into the strategy, political considerations, history and dramatic events and results tied to the war.
The bookmark idea came to life while Straw was watching a piece on Rocky Bleier, the Pittsburgh Steelers running back who made it back to play in the NFL after being shot up in Vietnam. "Phil got in touch with me," said Steve Sabol of NFL Films, "and we've been only too happy to provide him with any material we have because, face it, these guys are the real heroes."
Two years ago, while he was leafing through an issue of Sports Illustrated, Phil Straw's eyes caught the caption "Upon other fields, on other days . . ." It was a story about Don Holleder, a football All-America while at West Point and war hero, a terrific candidate to become a student's best friend.
As luck would have it, this is the 100th anniversary of Army football and, in a tribute to Army players who made the supreme sacrifice, Holleder commands a prominent spot in the NFL Films production "Field of Honor." Along with other videos, Straw played it in his Tuesday evening class.
"The student who drew the name of Holleder interviewed the medic who was part of the scene the day Don lost his life and was cited for exceptional bravery in 1967," Straw said. "He said it was still so vivid to him, Maj. Holleder jumping out of a helicopter and rushing to the aid of troops who had been ambushed by the Viet Cong."
Holleder was hacking a clearing for medical helicopters when enemy fire cut him down. The Army medic is quoted as saying, "What an officer. He went on ahead of us -- literally running in the point position."
With the 91st Army-Navy game coming up Dec. 8, on the 100th anniversary of the first game, no doubt old Cadets will draw a deep breath and swallow deeply recalling the days of Don Holleder at West Point. He was one of the nation's best as an end in 1954 before the team fell on tough times the next year and legendary coach Red Blaik asked him to make the switch to quarterback.
The team started just 2-2, including a 26-2 whomping by Michigan, and Blaik was drawing fire for taking a sure-fire All-America end and positioning him behind center. Then Army began winning and it was time to face a loaded Navy team (6-1-1) in Philadelphia.
Just before sending his team out on the field, Blaik told his players what a dreaded task it had become, making his way across the field after the game to congratulate the Middies coach on his victory. From the back of the room came a voice. "Coach, you're not going to have to make that walk." It was Holleder. He was right: Army 14, Navy 6.
"You can see why with stories like this, the people in the class get so involved," said Straw. And then there's some of the people who have lectured the class -- former presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, Gen. William Westmoreland, senators, media giants and assorted generals and admirals as well as the people in the trenches.
"We carefully and fairly examine American involvement in Southeast Asia, not looking to prove any one theory about the PTC war," Straw said. "We're just looking to understand the past. And I consider myself blessed to be in the company of great students willing to listen, eager to learn and aware of the sacrifices of those who served."