SSHS Students Learn From Firsthand Oral Histories
By Arthur Gonick
SARATOGA SPRINGS – As part of a nationwide effort to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the ceasing of hostilities in Vietnam, the city of Saratoga Springs became one of the first to enroll as a commemorative partner in this effort. The roster of partners is now 100 in New York State and over 6,000 in the United States.
There will be many activities scheduled by the appointed committee in this city, which is taking its role quite seriously. But none will probably be more important and instructive than those that occurred for two days this week.
On Tuesday, Oct. 28 and Wednesday, Oct. 29 a panel of about a dozen veterans of the Vietnam war – drawn from all walks of life, all service company’s, some local, some regional and some who traveled a good distance – met with several classes of students at Saratoga Springs High School to share their experiences and pass on the history of that conflict.
“This was a great experience for the students,” said Teacher Ron Schorpp, whose War and Diplomacy class, a mix of 11th and 12th graders, were in attendance. Over the two-day program, nearly 200 students attended. “After the city became an official partner, I was very glad that Jim Hartman (a member of the local committee who was part of the panel. Jim served in USAF Intelligence and was in Vietnam in 1970) reached out to us.” He said.
“The students were attentive and asked some really interesting questions.” Schorpp said. Those questions ran the gamut: ranging from asking each what was the first thing they did when they finally came home, to the Veteran’s thoughts on how we should battle ISIS and the broader question of when and if to commit troops overseas.
With a diverse panel assembled, a variety of thoughts and experiences were to be expected. But what was striking about this presentation is how the student exhibited rapt attention – particularly noticeable because the presentation itself was fairly sparse – no multi-media and scarcely any props save some yellowing newspaper clippings. Just men sharing and students listening. And it was stunning in it’s simplicity.
Marine Dave Kissick came home to be a Principal at Lansingburgh High School. He focused on the “What if?” aspect of history, noting that service in Vietnam was “nothing like HBO” – referring to Band of Brothers which got many knowing nods from all in the assembly.
Lew Benton recalled being drafted into the Army at age 25, after having been married, and feeling grateful that he was able to serve as a medic – that thought tempered by the sobering reality that he treated about 1,000 combat wounds during his service.
25th Infantryman Don Little, now the head of the County’s VETHELP program: “I didn’t know how much military service would affect my life… once, I didn’t want anyone to even know I served. Now I’m proud.”
Roy McDonald served in the Army and later came home to a career in the state senate. “The best part of service in Vietnam: The people. All kinds were accepted – we were all family.”
The worst part: “Everything else. Romance about war is a movie – not reality… you could tell what people cared about by what they carried in their pockets – family photos, mementoes of home. I never forget every day that I have 60,000 reasons to be thankful,” referring to the number of people lost in the conflict.
Other veterans expressed concepts like “survivor’s guilt” and their experiences under friendly fire.
Jim Coyne was the military “lifer” of the group. 36 years service; rising from the rank of Private to Colonel. He used his time as a teaching moment, giving students baseline facts and figures that don’t appear in movies. For instance, Vietnam, a country of 19 million people, is only 10 percent Buddhist.
The teaching was interspersed with good humor, as Coyne noted that some of his biggest wish list items in the field were “toilet paper and ice,” but never unmindful of how lucky he was to come through Vietnam alive.
This event at Saratoga Springs High School was but one of several scheduled in our city, showing it’s commitment to do the important work of being a true commemorative partner – that this will be more than sewing a patch on a jacket or a hat.
Events like today are not as showy as a parade, but serve incredibly important purposes. Chief among them is to educate and, hopefully, learn from the inhumanity of war. Specifically in the case of all our Vietnam veterans, events such as these serve to bestow honor to them for their service to our country that, in most cases, they never received.
Their long overdue welcome home is finally just beginning now. Today was one example of a promise kept that everyone should be proud to see play out.
For more information, visit vietnamwar50th.com