A group of African American Vietnam War veterans were invited to Wake Forest last Friday to share their memories from the controversial conflict with students in an English class.
The students had been exploring the letters mailed home by American soldiers as they fought in Vietnam and various other wars. Sharon Raynor, a visiting professor from Johnson C. Smith University, teaches the class and conducts an oral history project centered around Vietnam veterans called “The Silence of War.” All the guest veterans have taken part in Raynor’s project.
“I thought it would be great for students to meet with veterans and get these kind of firsthand experiences,” said Raynor, whose work was inspired by her father’s Vietnam War diary.
John W. Nesbitt, who was joined by fellow vets Ronnie Stokes Sr., John Barnes, Robert Jones and Tex Howard, told the class he wasn’t happy when he was drafted into the war, but thought things might be looking up when he heard he would be going to Asia.
“(I thought) that would be cool,” said Nesbitt, who lives in Durham. “I said, ‘It’ll be nice and warm over there.’”
When he landed in Vietnam, it did not take him long to learn that it wasn’t paradise. He recalled that even walking along jungle trails was deadly, since many were lined with booby traps.
Stokes volunteered to go to war. He didn’t want to go to college and felt the Army was a good alternative and would allow a farm boy from Goldsboro to see the world.
“I learned quickly when I got over there it wasn’t a place that you needed to be and once you were there, regardless of what the situation may be, you got to do your best to get home,” said Stokes, who still lives in his hometown.
He said as difficult as the war was, it was free of the Civil Rights conflicts being waged at home. Integrated units were united, he said, in trying to find out where the Viet Cong was.
Barnes, a Goldsboro native who also volunteered to go war, recalled the less than heroes’ welcome he and other Vietnam vets received when they returned to the United States. Veterans of other wars returned to parades and admiration, but after Barnes’ tour of duty, members of his unit returned home separately and quietly. There was no fanfare.
Jones, who was drafted into the Marine Corps, was injured fighting for his country, but even that fact didn’t earn him the respect of the American public.
“Vietnam was taboo,” said Jones, who lives in Wake Forest, N.C. “It was never war, it was a conflict. You weren’t doing things your country said you should do, you were doing things to stay alive basically, and it wasn’t pretty.”
Clinton resident Howard, like Jones, left the war via medevac. He said upon his homecoming, his own family avoided and even feared him.
“It makes you feel kind of messed up when you got family members that don’t want to be around you,” he said.
The veterans also shared stories about their everyday lives during the war, in which American soldiers fought for nearly a decade beginning in the mid-1960s. The vets said drug use was common among the soldiers, many of whom had been drafted at the age of 18 or 19. Soldiers spent their down time listening to the radio, swapping stories, playing sports and, best of all, reading letters from loved-ones back home.
The veterans said receiving letters and care packages from home were one of the few highlights.
“Letters was, man, that was like heaven … that was something you always looked forward to,” Jones said. “It helped you get through the day or through the week.”
News from home sometimes had an adverse effect on soldiers. The vets said bad news, such as a break up letter from a girlfriend, sometimes sent soldiers, already sunken by the bloody conflict, over the edge. The vets said some, after receiving Dear John letters, shot themselves, inflicting a “million dollar wound” that would ensure they’d be sent home.
Sprigg Doval, a freshman in Raynor’s “When Writing Goes to War” class, said hearing from veterans in person shined new light on what he’d been learning in class. Doval said the vets drove home the power that letters can have.
“The little communications they had from back home were so important,” he said.
For more information about “The Silence of War,” visit www.thesilenceofwar.com.