Eighth Graders March in Honor of a Peer
As eighth grade students at the University School of Milwaukee in Wisconsin begin their Vietnam War unit, their American history teacher, Chuck Taft, displays the photo of Jack Russell Smith. He asks if his class if there is anything familiar about this young man.
Inevitably, a student notices that Smith is wearing the same tie that the boys in this class will don in just a few weeks at their graduation ceremony. He has such a young face; the students’ jaws drop when they hear that the photo is a senior picture. It was taken before he went to fight in April of 1970.
“I learned about Vietnam the wrong way: through Hollywood,” Taft said. “I want to make sure the story is told the right way. And I think the best way to teach is through a personal connection.”
Taft joined VVMF’s Teach Vietnam Teachers Network in 2003. He has been taking students on annual trips to Washington, D.C. since 2008.
“[The Wall] is the highlight of the trip,” Taft said. “I left a University School shirt at The Wall.”
Smith was killed on May 14, 1970 as he was flying over Cambodia. This lesson of service and sacrifice inspired Taft’s 84 students to participate in a service learning experience in honor of Memorial Day. Together with members of the Milwaukee community, they walked around the USM campus 3,200 times, the equivalent of 800 miles; nearly the distance from Milwaukee to Washington, D.C. The 2013 March to the Memorials fundraiser generated over $3,700 for VVMF, Stars and Stripes Honor Flights and DryHootch in Milwaukee.
“I consider it my service to make sure these guys are never forgotten,” Taft said.
It was in Smith’s name that the students of USM and Taft made a donation to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund in support of building the Education Center at The Wall. There, Smith’s photo will be on display forever.
The Education Center will be a place on our National Mall where our military heroes’ stories and sacrifice will never be forgotten. With plans to begin construction in 2014, the Center is a technologically-innovative learning facility to be built on the grounds of the Vietnam Veterans and Lincoln Memorials. Visitors will better understand the profound impact that the Vietnam War and other wars had on their friends and family members, their hometowns and the nation. The Center will feature the faces and stories of the more than 58,000 men and women on The Wall, honoring those who fell in Vietnam, those who fought and returned, as well as the friends and families of all who served. The Center will also celebrate the legacy of service that links the heroes of America’s past to those still serving today.
“I cannot wait to take [the students] to the Education Center once it is finished!” Taft said. “It will benefit my students well into the future.”