After surviving his first firefight in the Vietnam War, Charlie Jones watched his fellow Army troops kick and spit on the body of a Viet Cong rebel who had tried to kill them just moments earlier. Jones said he fell to his knees and prayed that he would never feel such hatred toward another human being.
The retired sergeant major shared this story at Charlottesville High School last week, telling an audience of 200 students that he wished the same thing for them.
“I hope and pray that none of you have to go to war, because it makes you hate,” Jones said.
For the third year, students in Matt Deegan’s World History class at CHS are preparing to interview veterans of 20th-century conflicts and share their stories in short documentary videos and podcasts. Deegan said this year’s projects will be submitted to the Library of Congress, where they could be preserved in perpetuity.
“I believe that history is simply telling stories,” said Deegan. “It’s the telling of these stories that helps us understand who we are. And telling war stories can help us understand the complexity of war.”
Deegan’s students learn about war as a unifying theme of the last five centuries. Over the course of the year, they will be asked to consider difficult, open-ended questions about war, such as: Is war ever a good thing?, Is terrorism a type of war? and Is war an inevitable part of being human?
Deegan said the oral history projects help the students understand the impact of global conflicts at a local and personal level.
“It lets students see how accessible history can be,” Deegan said. “History is local, it’s people in our community – it’s us.”
For their group projects, the students will interview veterans at the Vietnam War Foundation Museum in Ruckersville.
Dick Thompson, a retired lieutenant colonel and volunteer tour guide at the museum, said CHS is the only public school that arranges an annual field trip.
“[Deegan] makes it work really well,” Thompson said. “It requires a lot of planning. It’s a full day there for the students and the volunteers, and it’s always a good one.”
At the museum, students will have the chance to handle replica machine guns and get behind the controls of a military helicopter. However, Deegan said the conversations with the veterans are the centerpiece of the trip, and the highlight for many students.
Before meeting the veterans, students listen to podcasts and participate in workshops to formulate questions, practice their interviews and sharpen their historical thinking skills.
“You have to make sure the questions go beyond ‘yes’ and ‘no,’” said C’erra Rhodes, a junior who completed the project last year.
The subject of Rhodes’ project, Albert Dale, fought in the Korean War and later created tactical maps for American soldiers in Vietnam.
“I learned about how wars work,” Rhodes said. “There is so much that has to be done behind the scenes, and off the battlefield.”
This year, the CHS students’ study of war will coincide with the premiere of the highly anticipated PBS documentary series “The Vietnam War,” directed by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick. Local PBS affiliates will air the first episode of the 10-part series at 8 p.m. Sunday, and again at 10 p.m.
“We are about to have a national conversation about the Vietnam War in a way that we haven’t had in many years,” Deegan said.
Last week, Deegan and other CHS humanities teachers brought their students to the school’s Martin Luther King Jr. Performing Arts Center for a panel discussion featuring Jones; Thompson; Robert Hodierne, a Vietnam War veteran and war reporter; and Marc Selverstone, associate professor of presidential studies at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center of Public Affairs.
The discussion was moderated by Deegan and Terri Allard, host of the WHTJ public television program “Charlottesville Inside-Out.” City schools Superintendent Rosa Atkins made some brief opening remarks.
Atkins, a former Army reservist, said many people in the Charlottesville area were personally affected by the Vietnam War, including herself.
“As a teenager, I watched my brother go off to the war,” Atkins said. “He paid a heavy price so you and I can be free and enjoy life in this country.”
Nadiya Khaydari, a senior who completed two oral history projects for Deegan’s class in 2016, told the audience she was shocked to learn about the animosity the veterans faced from anti-war protesters when they came back from Vietnam.
“After all the horrifying things they saw, the soldiers weren’t respected when they returned home,” Khaydari said. “People called them ‘baby-killers,’ even though some of them had helped protect Vietnamese children in orphanages.”
“To this day, many Vietnam veterans still feel that they aren’t honored as they should be, due to decisions that were above their pay grade,” said Deegan. “The issue of having to heal from national divisions is a theme throughout history that I try to hammer home.”
Selverstone, who served as a consultant for the Burns documentary, said the Vietnam War caused many Americans to lose faith in their government for the first time.
“People began to question not only the government of the 1960s, but the mission of the country since its founding,” he said. “The questioning of these institutions, which has persisted up to the present day, grew out of the Vietnam years.”
Khaydari, a student representative on the Charlottesville School Board, said young people today should treat service members and veterans with respect, even if they oppose the wars they fought in.
“You don’t know what somebody else has been through,” she said. “We will never experience what they went through.”