Unteachable lessons about war
EAGLE COUNTY – War seems like a terribly complex issue for a high school curriculum. But then again, who could possibly be more affected by the situation in Iraq than the 16- to 18-year-olds in today’s classrooms? After all, when the president talks about deploying additional troops to the region, he’s talking about sending people who are often times just out of high school themselves.For the past three months, students at Red Canyon High School have been studying the Vietnam war and its parallels to the conflict in Iraq.
The students at the alternative high school listened to the protest music of the 1960s and studied the media coverage at the time. Then, they went out to the community and invited 10 local Vietnam vets to share their stories. The result was a juxtaposition of people in their 50s taking themselves back to their 20s – and sharing memories and photos of themselves when they were contemporaries to the students in the seats. Twelve weeks later the kids had heard a lot of stories – and gained a lot of perspective, said Troy Dudley, a teacher at the school. “This wasn’t something that I could teach them,” Dudley said.
“When you came in country, you were usually a dumb, young kid,” said Pat Hammon, Eby Creek resident who served as an Army nurse during the Vietnam war.Silhouetted against a projector screen, Hammon flashed slides from her days at the 24th Evacuation Hospital in Long Bien, Vietnam. The pictures reflect a tall, vibrant redhead, nicknamed “Stork” by her compatriots. She was fresh out of Grace New Haven Nursing School at Yale University when she arrived. Hammon quickly got an education about emergency medicine from her station in the emergency room and triage center.”The head wounds we saw were ghastly,” Hammon said, “and in a war zone, you lose an arm, you lose legs and you have head wounds and chest wounds all at the same time.” When a combat-injured patient arrived, the first order of business was to cut off his uniform because, as Hammon noted, small entry sites were sometimes the only indicator of a lethal wounds. Patients were routed through a series of buildings, from triage to X-ray to operating rooms to recovery rooms. Ultimately they were sent to a ward with other patients who suffered similar injuries. Next door to the regular hospital was the prisoner-of-war facility. “As medical people, you don’t ask someone about their politics or what they do in life. You just take care of them,” she explained. “And we did take care of lot of the locals when where things were quiet.” Her time in Vietnam was dominated by her work. Hammon also remembers “scrounging” acquisitions (the Air Force always had the best stuff) celebrity visits, and trips around the county in the company of General William Kraft.Because the hospital complex included a performing stage, many celebrities visited Long Bien. Johnny Cash performed two shows, despite the fact that he was ill, and had a temperature of 104 degrees.On another occasion, the nurses packed up patients to attend a Bob Hope show a few miles away from the hospital. It was a very hot day and the area was packed with soldiers who had been imbibing for hours. The performance was delayed and the audience got increasingly rowdier. “I was more frightened at that show than at any other time in Vietnam,” said Hammon.She has less favorable memories of the time then-First Lady Pat Nixon traveled to the hospital. Hammon said Mrs. Nixon’s visit was choreographed to the very minute. For days proceeding her arrival, injured GIs were cleaned up and prepared for viewing. The Army even went so far as to iron patients’ pajamas. “It looked (like) a Hilton when they were done. We were pretty upset that was all she was going to see,” Hammon said. In an attempt to thwart all that orchestration, Hammon and another nurse stationed themselves inside a head-wound recovery ward – one of the most demoralizing locales in the hospital – that was situated along the route Mrs. Nixon was walking. As the First Lady strolled by, the two swung open the door and asked if she would like to visit that ward. The First Lady kept walking and Hammon was severely reprimanded for her actions. Hammon was able to make some friends in high places during her Vietnam tenure. Gen. Kraft often visited his troops at Long Bien and he took a liking to the young nurse he called “Red.” He offered to bring her along as he traveled around Vietnam so she was able to see much of the country. “Vietnam is a beautiful country,” she said. She said that the local people were caught up in a conflict they didn’t understand. “All they cared about was where their next meal was coming from and how to take care of their children,” she said. “They didn’t know what the war was about, but they were stuck in the middle of it.”
Like Hammon, Eagle County Sheriff Joe Hoy spent his early 20s in Vietnam. A native of upstate New York, he attended college in Utah on an ROTC scholarship. Afterward, he learned he would be trained as a helicopter pilot. “When they said I was going to be flying helicopters, I knew I was going to Vietnam,” he said. After training in the United States, Hoy was stationed in the central highlands of Vietnam. “In some ways it was like a jungle paradise,” he said. But it was also a volatile location where Hoy flew dangerous missions for a full year. He noted the area from 200 to 4,000 feet above tree level was called the “dead zone” – the area where helicopters were vulnerable to the guns on the ground. “The whole idea was to spend the least amount of time as possible in the dead zone,” Hoy explained. As a result, pilots would push their machines to shoot up above 4,000 feet as quickly as possible, leading to some gut-wrenching flying maneuvers. Flying provided Hoy with a unique vantage of the war. He remembers troops streaming out one side of his helicopter while body bags were piled in on the other. On the scariest mission he ever flew, not a single shot was fired. On that occasion, Hoy was called in to transport a pair of covert operatives. Hoy had orders to shoot and kill the two men rather than allow their capture in the event his helicopter was downed. The mission was successful – or at least Hoy’s part of it was. He flew the men to the predetermined site, dropped them off and returned to his base. He never learned who they were or what they planned to do.
As harrowing as their time in Vietnam was, coming home presented huge challenges for veterans. “Coming home in late 1969 was difficult,” said Hammon. “Nobody wanted to talk about the war.” Hoy recalled one occasion when, dressed in his full uniform, he stepped out of his apartment. A neighbor greeted him by asking “How many babies did you kill?””I don’t know if you can imagine what that does to you,” Hoy said. Hammon explained many people kept their traumatic Vietnam experiences to themselves. As a result, a generation of young Americans were still hurt by the war years after it ended, she said. Part of her healing process meant leaving the medical profession to earn a degree in art history. In later years she also worked on a women veteran’s memorial, located near Vietnam Memorial on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. But even now, it doesn’t take much to prompt a flashback. “When I hear a helicopter, my pulse speeds up,” she said. “I can’t watch violent movies. I can’t even watch violent commercials.””Every time I hear a helicopter go over, I get goosebumps,” Hoy said. Part of the healing process included talking about what happened in Vietnam. So even as the students thanked them for sharing their stories, the veterans thanked the students for the opportunity to speak. And even 30 years later, sometimes memories can be overwhelming. When Hoy started talking about losing his best friend in Vietnam, he was momentarily overcome. As tears filled his eyes, he turned his back to the quiet room for a moment to compose himself. “Some of these things stay with you for a long, long time,” he explained.This story appeared first in the Eagle Valley Enterprise.