Vietnam veterans bring lessons closer to home War stories rivet Fallston students

June 13, 1993|By Victor Paul Alvarez | Victor Paul Alvarez,Staff Writer

The students take their seats and look into the faces of th men who packed for the jungles of Southeast Asia after high school instead of the beach or college.

At Fallston High School, the 11th-graders grow silent.

Too young to remember the war in Vietnam, the protests that raged across America, the televised images of napalmed villages burning, they ask their questions, then sit in rapt attention as the veterans tell their stories.

Most of the students know mainly Hollywood versions of this war -- "Rambo" and "Platoon" and "China Beach" -- and cursory references in textbooks, some of which devote as much space to Elvis Presley or Marilyn Monroe.

John Holzworth, the students' history teacher, decided they needed to know more about America's longest war.

So on Thursday, he brought in the eight Vietnam veterans to share their stories in five separate panels at the school library.

Mr. Holzworth, a soft-spoken man with silver hair, begins the session with minimal instruction.

"I'm going to treat you as reporters," he tells his students. "I want you to stand up, identify yourself, and direct your question to a particular individual."

Then the questions begin.

Kelly Greer, a slender girl with sandy brown hair, speaks with care, respect.

What was it like, she wants to know, to be drafted when you were our age?

Richard Marcinik, a U.S. Army veteran who received a Purple Heart after his tank ran over a mine, takes the question.

He remembers all too well, right down to the words on the draft notice.

" 'Greetings from the President of the United States. Your friends, neighbors and countrymen have selected you to join in the armed forces which protect the United States of America,' " he says.

"That was the first paragraph, and I still remember that after 25 years."

What did he make of the prospect of traveling half a world away to protect the United States of America?

"Pure anger," he snaps, "nothing but rage."

Another student asks Sgt. Michael McCabe, a former Army interrogation specialist, how soldiers got the enemy to talk.

Before responding, Sgt. McCabe looks to Mr. Holzworth.

"How graphic would you like me to be?"

The teacher gives him full rein.

The veteran hesitates before proceeding, then speaks of horrors he saw daily. Among them: electric shocks, or another interrogation technique -- pushing suspected enemies from helicopters to extract information from their comrades.

The high school juniors turn silent once more.

Between panels, former Marine Sgt. Paul Gloria speaks of the days before his draft notice arrived.

He says he was afraid -- afraid he wouldn't get the chance to fight for his country.

"How do you deal with something like that at that age? I was scared stiff the war would be over before I graduated high school," he says. "I was petrified. I wanted to go over there so bad I could taste it."

That was then.

Now, he spends a good deal of his time researching evidence of prisoners of war still being held in Vietnam.

Another student is curious about "decompression time" -- the period just before a soldier's return.

"I went over there with my unit and came back alone," responds Jim Hanna, who served as an Army sergeant in Vietnam. "I would have liked to come back with people I knew.

"A lot of guys I knew were literally back in the states after 18 hours [after their tour of duty]. You can't do that to people. You can't just turn a switch. I'm not even sure that time is the key factor, but discussion with someone who understands is important."

Then came the alienation for veterans who returned to a country where many viewed them as less than heroes and the war they fought as an immoral cause.

"No one back home understood, and no one cared," Sergeant Hanna says.

Outside the school, Sergeant Hanna and Sergeant Gloria puff on cigarettes as students in a gym class trot by on their way to the locker rooms.

Watching the kids, Sergeant Hanna says: "They talk about Rambo. We grew up on all that, too -- John Wayne and all. One of our favorite television shows [while in Vietnam] was 'Combat.' We thought it was comedy. The war wasn't like that."

Not at all.

If you want to get some idea what it was really like, former Air Force Sgt. Charlie Ochs tells students during a panel, look out the windows and imagine.

"What if right now somebody walked past those windows, shot a few rounds and you saw the glass shattering, the bullets coming through, and a few of you were dead?

"How would you feel?"

More silence.

"It's something awful to see people you care about get killed."

The questions cease, the day's lesson ends. But a different sort of education has just begun.

History class, the students say, was never quite like this.

"Textbooks have to remain objective," says one of them, Kim Dennis.

"There are some things you can't learn from a textbook."

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