Vets share war stories, lessons with Vail Valley
Vail Valley, CO Colorado
VAIL VALLEY, Colorado ” As 20 high school students watched intently in Eagle-Vail, Colorado, Vietnam veteran Dan Smith held back tears as he spoke about losing one of his closest friends in combat.
“The tanker he was in got hit, and shrapnel just tore off a whole side of his face,” said Smith, 62, an Avon resident. “He died on the way to Japan, and I wasn’t there. That’s the worst part. When you’re there, you can process. But I wasn’t there.”
Smith, a retired Army sergeant, was one of about 25 Vail Valley veterans who shared their war experiences in local classrooms this week in honor of Veteran’s Day. The veterans were at Battle Mountain High School, Eagle Valley High School, and several elementary schools.
Smith talked about his time in the Army ” the big explosions, the friends lost along the way.
“The way you cope is humor,” Smith told students. “The standard phrase in Vietnam was, ‘It don’t mean nothing.'”
Smith told the students about exploding outhouses and tricks the soldiers played on each other. He also talked about the difficulties of watching friends die and returning from the war.
Dealing with the experience can still be difficult, he said to students.
“I do a lot of things in the valley. I can ski 120 days a year, I have a lot of friends, and a good retirement,” he said. “But there’s 28 19-year-olds’ faces in the back of my mind who didn’t come back. They can’t do all that stuff.”
Battle Mountain sophomore Martin Almaraz sat quietly through the stories, but later told Smith that he wants to enlist in the Army after he graduates.
“It’s pretty interesting, and some of the stuff he said really gives me some ideas. It sounds like fun,” Almaraz said.
He nodded solemnly when asked if he was prepared for the tough parts of the job that Smith mentioned.
“I know,” he said. “I’m planning on it.”
Students in David Cope’s geography class shot questions at retired Army Lt. Col. Bern Krueger, a Desert Storm and Iraq veteran.
“Did you ever crash?”
“Did you ever get shot?”
Krueger, once a Battle Mountain High School student himself, smiled.
“No, but there were a lot of close calls,” he said.
Cope, who also teaches history, said that the students studied some of the conflicts and locations of the wars before the veterans visited.
“Some of this is fitting in very nicely with the curriculum,” he said. “We’ve been studying Southeast Asia in geography.”
Amidst the curious questions of “How many people did you kill?” or “Did it hurt to get shot?” the veterans said they are trying to help the students understand what it meant to be in a war and why it was important.
“We want them to get an appreciation of what being a veteran means and an appreciation of our history ” that people have died for their freedom,” said Pat Hammon, who served in Vietnam as an Army nurse.
Talking to students can be difficult for the veterans, too, Hammon said. Students can ask hard questions, and for some veterans, it is their first time talking to kids about their experience.
And the message gets through at times. Some students are inattentive, while others fidget in their seats. However, in spite of themselves, most can’t help but register expressions of amazement when the veterans speak of lost friends or living through an entire night of explosions.
“I get some disbelief. There is some shock,” Smith said. “But I want them to understand that there is an unpleasantness to war, but it’s also a necessity. It goes back to the willingness of putting space between home and danger. It’s placing yourself between your country and really bad stuff.”
Staff Writer Melanie Wong can be reached at 970-748-2928 or email@example.com.