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Monday, November 20 Local

Vietnam veterans speak to GHS students about life after service

In a photo projected at Greenwich High School, American GIs clomped through the Vietnamese jungle. Their eyes were tense, as if they sensed danger, and they clutched their rifles so they could fire at a moment’s notice.

Even a split-second delay might result in a friend’s death, or their own.

Navy veteran Bruce Winningham asked his teenaged audience to imagine the same scene, but with a different setting. Instead of the swampy, vegetative overgrowth, he said, pretend that the soldiers were marching through rock and sand.

With the change of geography, it could be an image of their generation in Afghanistan, Iraq or Niger.

At this year’s Veterans Day assembly, held this week in GHS’ performing arts center, two veterans from the Vietnam era spoke to students about their experiences in the field, with Winningham acting as a moderator.

No one sugarcoated his time in-country.

“When I say it was raining, it never stopped raining for three months,” said Bob Moore, who served in Vietnam during monsoon season from 1970-71 as an Army officer. “It was miserable. We were scared, and cold, and wet.”

For GHS junior Tysen Comizio, the veterans’ stories personalized the war.

“It was easy for me to visualize what it was like, and it puts it in a new perspective rather than just reading out of a textbook,” Comizio said. He admitted that before the talk, he hadn’t even understood that fighting took place across all of Vietnam.

During the assembly, Moore’s counterpart from the Navy, Edward Vick, emphasized a few statistics to challenge one of the predominant myths about the war. He told students that contrary to the common narrative, only 30 percent of those killed in action were draftees; the rest had signed up willingly.

But ultimately, the point of the panel was not to rehash the details of a war that took place half a century ago. Instead, Michael Galatioto, the U.S. history and psychology teacher who organized the event, wanted to educate his students about how warfare affects soldiers, years after their service.

“These veterans offer the perspective of time, and I think that gives them an informed idea of what it means to be in a war, and come out of the war, and have to re-assimilate into society,” Galatioto said.

Vick was a patrol boat commander along the Mekong Delta from 1968-69. He told the crowd that his tour had taught him “courage under fire, or grace under pressure.”

When he spoke to Greenwich Time, Vick detailed the internal battles he fought after returning stateside. But in the end, his service made him who he is today, he said, in a good way.

Approximately five percent of GHS students serve in the military, according to the career counselor’s office. Through the annual assembly, Galatioto tries to provide local teens with a full picture of what they might encounter before they choose to enlist or attend one of the academies.

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“When recruiters come and talk to the kids, they definitely get one perspective, and I think this helps give them another perspective,” he said.

In U.S. History, he has already addressed the Vietnam conflict with his sophomores. A good number of the students have fathers, uncles or other relatives who fought, and the topic often comes up in conversation, he said.

“I almost think the Vietnam War is coming of age in terms of our ability to talk about it,” he continued. “It’s becoming a little more historical. It’s not as fresh in people’s minds.”

But even as the war fades from the present into the past, its context is not altogether unfamiliar to today’s youth.

Vick remembered doing duck and cover drills during sixth and seventh grade. The country was in the throes of the Cold War, and nuclear holocaust loomed as a real possibility.

Vick and his classmates studied the domino theory and were taught to believe that communists wanted to kill them. The fear their education engendered inspired many of them to join up.

“Ho Chi Minh, the leader of the north, was primarily a nationalist and only coincidentally a communist, and I think we did some serious misreading probably couched in the paranoia of the Red Scares of the 1950s,” Moore said.

Today, news stories that focus on an impending nuclear threat from North Korea give teenagers much the same impression — for the first time since the fall of the Soviet Union, nuclear warfare appears possible.

Teddy Bacon, who is a junior at GHS, said that if he does not go to college for some reason, he wants to enlist instead.

“I feel like there’s a lot of things in the world that are wrong,” he explained. “I’d rather do something about it and fight for my country.”

Nuclear weaponry and its implications are not the only parallel between the Vietnam era and today. One student asked if the veterans would relive the conflict. Though Vick said he did not regret his decisions, he faulted the government for not seeing the war through to its completion.

As the former chairman of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, Vick said politicians are making the same decisions now in the Middle East.

“It’s criminal,” he said.

Moore admitted that he was angry after watching “The Vietnam War” this fall. In one of the episodes, a recording of Lyndon B. Johnson reveals that the commander-in-chief knew the conflict was un-winnable years before Moore ever arrived in-country. That soundbite has haunted him.

Still, both Vick and Moore said they were glad to have served.

“I think every citizen has a responsibility to preserve American values, and if some of us don’t step up and volunteer and go do it, we’re going to lose our edge,” Moore said. Plus, he added, “You will never get an adrenaline rush like when someone is shooting at you.”

Vick maintains that his time as a naval officer is his proudest moment.

“I was part of something bigger than myself,” he said. “I did something that was honorable, and I did something for the benefit of others and the benefit of my country.”

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