"Some of the things that you hear are too incredible to be true, but they are. They’re too heinous to be true, but they are. They’re too heroic to be true, but they are. So when you hear a story about the military, we’re not all a bunch of crazed killers; we’re people just like … you folks, but we’ve had different experiences. Sometimes they’re really hard to understand unless you have the background to understand them," veteran Jim Parke told Dickinson State University students on Wednesday.
Parke and five other veterans came to May Hall to talk to students in professors Margaret Barnhart and Michelle Stevier's classes about their experiences in the military.
Both professors are teaching "The Things They Carried" as part of DSU's Big Read event. The book is part fiction, part autobiography about the Vietnam War, written by Vietnam veteran Tim O'Brien.
Parke provided context for students about the war.
"That wasn’t a good war. We shouldn’t have been there, but those of us who did went there because it was our job," he said. "The things that happened back then happened because of a lot of factors ... People were frustrated. The next day they could be dead — for what? For nothing. You have to understand that context when you talk about certain things in the military."
Parke gave the students a real-life scenario to consider.
"You just saved a village from being overrun by the Viet Cong. You land your helicopter there, you get out and everybody’s yelling and cheering. A little kid brings up a basket of flowers … and comes running towards the helicopter. What do you do? You have probably three seconds to decide," he said.
He speculated that many of the students would say they'd thank the kids and accept the flowers.
"Well ... that had happened and there was a live grenade and the thing blew the helicopter clear away. That’s the kind of thing when we talk about background and context … Do you shoot the kid and save your crew, or do you kill your crew and save the kid? How do you make that decision?" he asked.
Army veteran Dave Logosz shared a tough decision he made during the war.
"You didn’t know who your enemy was," he said. "A lot of times, your enemy was a little kid ... I was along the Cambodian border one night with two other guys. I was a sniper. We saw two kids walking in the grass, and they appeared to be like 12, 14 years old. They’re in a combat zone; no one is allowed to be there. We let them go by. About three hours later, they attacked an American patrol and killed two GI's. If I had killed them both, which I easily could have done, I would have maybe been feeling bad to this day that I killed two kids. I didn’t, and because of that, two Americans got killed. It’s a tough decision to make. You’re kind of like the Grim Reaper."
Navy veteran George Petermann told the students about the media's portrayal of service members during the Vietnam era.
"If I believed the press, news reports, the military was nothing but a bunch of village-burning, baby-killing monsters. Once I got into the service, I found out they’re not. They’re just average, everyday citizens who have taken on a big responsibility," he said.
"That’s why there’s such a divide, because that part of the story never gets reported. The side of the story that gets reported: American airman kills little kid. That’s how it goes. That’s how it was back then," he said.
Logosz said it's hard not to think of the things you saw. He and the other veterans talked about their struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder.
"I saw a lot of combat in Vietnam, and I have PTSD 100%. It’s something that’s very difficult. It’s hard to forget things that affected you so much at a young age, when you were very easily influenced. There’s things that you never forget, particularly traumatic events," Logosz said.
Both during service and after it, soldiers turned to alcohol and substance use to deal with trauma.
"Everybody I knew did drugs and did them through the night to get through the day … I did every kind of drug you could imagine when I was in the service. When I came back and got out, I quit," said Terry Welch, Marine Corps veteran.
Logosz knew a lot of soldiers who turned to alcohol when they came home to cope with the memories.
"When I got back from Vietnam … just about everybody that I knew that came back, they became alcoholics," Logosz said. "They did a lot of heavy drinking because you’re transitioning from over here to down here, it’s completely different. You’re trying to forget what happened, and every night you’d go to bed and you’d have nightmares. It was PTSD. I’d wake up and the whole bed would just be wet from sweat, every night."
The veterans all agreed that both telling their stories and listening to others' was therapeutic.
"My dad was a 50-caliber machine gunner in World War II, and he bombed a lot of cities," Welch said. "He never spoke about his service days. It took a real toll on him. It was damaging to him that he never spoke about the things that he went through. I joined the veterans organization for the opposite reason — to share feelings. If you don’t, if you keep them inside like my dad did, it damages you."
They urged students to ask veterans about their experiences, experiences that they will carry with them for the rest of their lives.