Veterans teach realities of war to next generation
On Oct. 15th, VVMF volunteers Jerry Martin and Joel Chase visited students at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School to give first-person narratives on Vietnam and to discuss the book The Things They Carried. Student Zachary Klayman writes about his moving experience with our veterans.
On October 15, the room was silent with the quiet respect the students had for the Vietnam Veterans. The students of Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School had just read The Things They Carried, a fictional novel about the Vietnam War. When we were given the opportunity to meet two real veterans, I jumped at the chance. The veterans, also VVMF volunteers, were Jerry Martin and Joel Chase. They were there to bring reality to our fictional ideas of the Vietnam War. They connected the truth of their experiences to the stories in the book, and I couldn’t wait to hear what they had to share.
The first thing that struck me was how regular the veterans looked. They could have been anyone that I walked past on the street without batting an eye. Here they were: two highly decorated veterans who fought in the forests, jungles, and mountains of Vietnam; two people who saw the horror and atrocities of war.
Jerry, a tall man who stood upright with a confident posture, introduced himself enthusiastically. I could tell that he was a teacher by the way he spoke and carried himself: engaging the students and talking with confidence about his experiences and ideas. Joel, the other veteran, waited patiently for his turn to speak. Some of the humorous stories they told us included hitching a ride in a military truck and eating bucket-loads of ice cream with their helmets. There was also a time when a friend tried to shoot a rat off Jerry’s chest while he was sleeping. Jerry and Joel were clearly friends, comfortable with debating the ideas in the book and their experiences in the war. They made us comfortable too, and eager to learn more.
It was eye-opening when Joel said he was annoyed with The Things They Carried. He felt tricked after noticing many of what he considered to be faults in the book. He mentioned that he was already far into the book before he realized it was fiction. Both veterans agreed that their experiences and feelings were different from those in the book. For one, Jerry mentioned that he did not want to run from the war, but rather, he “wanted to play on the Varsity team”. It wasn’t until they arrived there that they realized that home was a better place.
Both of their stories shared themes of brotherhood. It was the bonds that they made with their fellow soldiers that got them through the war. They had each others’ lives in their hands, constantly balancing on the edge of life and death, but together.
“People have this image of Vietnam with Rock and Roll and drugs. There were no drugs where I
was. Maybe behind the lines at the bases, but not where I was. We were protecting each other and no one would dare risk their brothers lives by being high on the job,” Jerry recalled.
Jerry also reflected on his visit to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. He said he could feel his brothers on the other side of that wall.
The Things They Carried is not meant to be a war book. It is meant to tell stories. In that way, the veterans and the book were connected. Jerry Martin and Joel Chase captured the attention of the students and told stories of brotherhood, triumph, and loss. However, it is the truth of the stories that the veterans told that added an extra sense of amazement. The veterans’ voices brought their stories to life in a way that books just cannot do. After hearing these great men speak, I shook their hands, smiled, and knew that I would carry their words with me.
Learn about The Things They Carried as a learning tool here.