Lessons of the Past and Present
By Maria Cucurullo
In 2007, I enrolled in Lessons of Vietnam/Recent International Relations (LOV/RIR), a course taught by Ms. Lindy Poling at Millbrook High School (Raleigh, N.C.). This class provided students with a hands-on experience by pairing students with “Links” (Vietnam War Veterans) with whom they would correspond via email at least once a week asking a set of questions. At the end of the first semester, students were required to compile a “Link Project” for their veteran and send it to them as special keepsakes. These books were made up of email correspondences, photos shared by the veteran, and a welcome home letter. Also during this class, students had the honor of listening to speakers, viewing educational films, and reading non-fiction books and fictional novels about the war.
Towards the end of the second semester in 2008, the students in my LOV/RIR class had the opportunity to take a three-day field trip to Washington, D.C. to visit The Wall where we searched and rubbed names of loved ones. Ms. Poling mentioned in her article, How the Vietnam War Still Touches Us a High School Field Trip to The Wall,“What better way is there to help students comprehend the sacrifices of war than expose them to the 58,220 names engraved on The Vietnam Veterans Memorial?” Other activities on the trip’s itinerary included holding an evening candlelight ceremony at The Wall, visiting the Korean War, Women in Military Service for America, Lincoln, and FDR Memorials, along withtouring the Arlington National Cemetery.
I got to know my wonderful Link, Mr. Kenneth Dodd (YN3, River Division 572) as he told me his story about enlisting in the U.S. Navy at the age of eighteen. In August 1968, Mr. Dodd arrived in Saigon to begin his tour of duty in the Vietnam War as a River Patrol Boat (PBR) sailor. His shipmates consisted of young men who as Mr. Dodd stated, “Did whatever was necessary for freedom – just as our fathers, and their fathers before us”.During the years of 1968-1969, Mr. Dodd and his Brown Water Navy crew became acquainted with their new lives on a PBR. During this time, the sailors of River Division 572 patrolled the extremely narrow river channels of Vietnam in search of the Viet Cong or those who aided them. The enemy lurked in the dark, dense jungle just beyond the river banks, and sometimes posed as innocent villagers paddling sampans loaded with deadly weapons and ammo. Mr. Dodd described it as a “brutal and ugly” task. Reflecting upon his time in the war, Mr. Dodd stated, “All in all, having done it, it is a time of honor that no one can take away from me. I served my country as asked. No fear, homesickness, miserable heat, or the loss of my shipmates would have changed my mind. Today, I stand proud and very honored to have had that experience.
The valuable lessons I learned from Mr. Dodd, Ms. Poling, and speakers of LOV/RIR went far beyond the teachings of any textbook. These valuable lessons will continue for generations to come with the help of The Education Center at The Wall. Not only did I come to realize the value of learning from and remembering the Vietnam War, but the importance of honoring its unforgettable veterans.
Honoring veterans, no matter which war(s) they served in, is crucial because of their great sacrifices. Life is a valuable gift –once lost, it cannot be regained. Veterans chose to put this gift at risk to protect the country they love. Particularly to Vietnam Veterans who rarely heard as much as a “welcome home”, we owe them in a way no money could ever repay them. However, I have learned through Mr. Dodd it is not money all veterans are after. Respect, gratitude, remembrance, and the desire to listen and learn from the people they served seemed to be most important to Mr. Dodd in regards to his service in Vietnam. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial, much like other Vietnam War memorials across the U.S., has made honoring those who served possible. These memorials will undoubtedly stand proud and strong, creating a lasting memory that will be here longer than any tangible or spoken gift we can give.
The desire to be listened to and learned from seemed to mean the world to Mr. Dodd. I realized this when he mentioned he was invited to Helen Hunt Jackson Elementary School in Temecula, California on Veteran’s Day, 2007. During this time, he gave a short talk on his service. He mentioned, “It gave Mr. Dodd a chance to wear the Black Beret once again, which I loved doing.” He also proudly recounted, “Taking center stage (and this really humbled me) was a photo of me while on the boats, a photo of my river patch, and a brief description of my service in the division. This was the nicest thing anyone had ever done for me since coming home from the war.”
With insights about the war from Mr. Dodd and Ms. Poling’s LOV/RIR class, I have learned that for every action, consequences will follow. Because of this, we must learn to heavily weigh our options not only for decisions affecting our personal lives, but for ones affecting the entire world. What is presented directly in front of us at times is not always the “big picture.” We must be courageous enough to choose the decisions that will be the most beneficial to all in the long run—even if that means personal loss. With this, we also must have the strength to acknowledge and admit the mistakes we have made so that we may learn from them and not repeat them.
In short, no matter which generation you belong to, learning from and remembering the Vietnam War/Era is necessary to promote the awareness of what has happened and what could happen. It is also important to understand that not all people who are worth remembering have once walked glamorously down a red carpet. The real heroes are those who once had mud smeared across their faces, those who lived on a day-to-day basis facing the fear of the unknown, those who served their country. I believe they deserve the utmost respect, gratitude, and remembrance.
I will never forget the lessons of Vietnam Mr. Dodd, Ms. Poling, and her extraordinary classroom speakers, worked so hard to unveil to me. Perhaps, I am able to return a lesson to them: I am thankful for your service, I am proud to have heard your stories, I will vow to continue to learn from and teach about the war, remember those who served, and will show interest and appreciation towards current servicemen and women who put their lives at risk so I may live carefree and happily at home with my family and friends.
In closing, I would like to say one simple statement to the young and the young at heart who have served my country: thank you. To those who never received it: Welcome Home! And to those who never returned, you are not forgotten in my heart.