Vail Valley VFW members give students a warrior’s-eye-view of Vietnam war | VailDaily.com

Vail Valley VFW members give students a warrior’s-eye-view of Vietnam war

EDWARDS — Their aging eyes look across a Red Canyon High School classroom and they see themselves five decades ago, when they stepped up to fight in Vietnam for their country, or against communism — or to have an adventure.

Since 2004, members of the local VFW Post have talked to local high school classes about the 1960s in general, and the Vietnam War in particular. Ann Constien team-teaches the Red Canyon class with Julie Richards.

The kids ask tough questions such as, "What does patriotism mean to you?" or the more complicated, "Who won?"

Together with the veterans they look at the war in Vietnam, the war at home and how political upheaval influenced both. The students watch Ken Burns' documentary, then are joined by local combat veterans.

"In my opinion they're heroes, although they would never call themselves heroes. They downplay what they did," Constien said.

This year, 12 veterans conducted 10 seminars, telling hard stories from their war experiences. Sometimes, those stories are still hard.

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"Ten years ago this was hard for a lot of people. A lot of people had to leave the room and adjust their contact lenses," said Pat Hammon, of the local VFW. Hammon was a nurse in Vietnam.

'What do you remember? What did you go through?'

The local VFW folks tell the students about how some people turned the war into a political cause, and divided the country over it. They back that claim with 20,000 pages of declassified documents from the CIA and FBI that line up exactly how it happened, and how the Soviet KGB bankrolled it. The students get a few declassified files to peruse.

Usually there are one or two kids in the class who are headed to the military. It's good they know what they might be volunteering for.

"Every veteran has a different story," Buddy Sims said. "(Constien) understood the turmoil and how divided the country was about this."

Sims talks about being an enlisted soldier before becoming an Air Force officer and B-52 bomber pilot, and how, in 1972 when the U.S. military finally got the green light to unleash those B-52s, it took 12 days to bring the North Vietnamese to the negotiating table in Paris for peace talks. Decades later, Sims was among 208 pilots asked by an uncertain nation to return to active duty as the United States armed forces prepared to launch Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Former Eagle County Sheriff Joe Hoy was a helicopter pilot with more than 300 missions in Vietnam.

"I have seen him with tears in his eyes," Sims said.

Kenton Krohlow was in the First Cavalry, a young soldier carrying a rifle. For the Red Canyon seminars, Krohlow talks about the war at home.

Most of the time they would try not to wear their uniforms off base. They'd be pelted with eggs and people would make obscene gestures and swear at them, Sims said.

"That has to be the most shameful time in American history. You're fighting in a war on the orders of the president and congress, you have no choice about being there and you're treated this way," Sims said.

Thomas Kirk was a prisoner of war for five and a half years in the "Hanoi Hilton," the same prison in which Arizona Sen. John McCain was held.

Pete Thompson was a Special Forces Advisor to the Army of the Republic of South Vietnam. He talks about what it was like to be in Southeast Asia and living with the Vietnamese people.

"In 1968, at 20 years of age, I was sent to Vietnam as a 'military advisor' to soldiers who had already been fighting for three decades," Thompson said.

J.P. Power was an infantry officer in Vietnam. For his presentation he brings in the mine he stepped on in Vietnam. It didn't go off.

Butch Mazzuca was shot down in a helicopter and landed on a North Vietnamese hospital. They didn't kill him.

Dan Smith was wounded twice and decorated much more than that.

Carl Gray won't tell you he's a hero, and he waves off anyone else who says it, but he is. The Silver Star, three Bronze Stars, two Purple Hearts and dozens of Air Medals he earned flying helicopters in Vietnam say he is. He was shot down five times and wounded three times during two tours in Vietnam.

Gray is one of the only people in our spiral arm of the universe who can tell you whether a helicopter — and a pilot — flies better or worse with bullet holes in them — lots and lots of bullet holes. In wartime, Gray rescued prisoners of war, single-handedly held off the enemy after his helicopter was shot down and after his M-60 machine gun ran out of ammo, he loaded his injured and unconscious crew onto a medevac helicopter while returning fire with a handgun.

"Veterans of Foreign Wars of the U.S. has a rich tradition of serving veterans, military families and their local communities," Sims said. "Our members' common bond and shared respect drive us to support those who have born the burden of battle — from WWII through service in Iraq, Afghanistan and other modern theaters."

Staff Writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935 and rwyrick@vaildaily.com.

VFW Vietnam members conducting RCHS seminars:

Col. Harve Latson, USA;

Capt. Pete Thompson, USA;

Capt. Tom Burch, USA;

Capt. Pat Hammon, USA;

Lt Col Buddy Sims, USAF;

Capt. Joe Hoy, USA;

Sgt. Dan Smith, USA;

Sgt. Kenton Krohlow, USA;

1st Lt JP Power, USMC;

PO Chuck Nash, USN;

Capt. Bill Welch, USMC

If you have a combat medal from any conflict and would like to join the local VFW, call Buddy Sims at 970-445-7573.