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Documentary Film,Khe Sanh,Marines,Veterans,Vietnam War

June 3, 2015

On the Vietnam War and History Students at Boise High School

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Several weeks back, I spent a day screening segments of BRAVO! and talking about the Vietnam War and war in general with high school students in Mrs. Sandie Waters’ Boise High School history classes.

Over the years I have spoken with high school students about various subjects including creative writing, poetry and Vietnam, and except for one instance I have been impressed with the interest of the students in the subject matter discussed and in the reception they have afforded me.

In the last decade, public schools and schoolteachers have taken quite a rhetorical beating from large segments of the American public. The complaints I have heard run from no discipline in the schools, to no history being taught in the schools. It’s very common to hear from other Vietnam vets how the school systems in America don’t teach anything about Vietnam. Another common type of complaint runs around the notions that teachers are not motivated, aren’t knowledgeable about a particular subject matter and don’t seem to care whether or not they help students get educated. And kids have no respect for anything but what’s happening now. That’s another one I hear a lot.

Ken Rodgers speaks at Boise High School

Ken Rodgers speaks at Boise High School

I have been pondering this over the last year or two, this business of competence in the schoolroom. I was educated in a public school and my wife Betty was educated in a public school and I feel both of us are fairly cognizant of what goes on in the world. When I point that out to folks, some say, “Well, that was back when schools were run right.”

Two of my granddaughters have been or are now being educated in public schools and both of them are excellent students, and I think at least some of that excellence must reflect on both their teachers and their schools.

For the record, my experience with Mrs. Waters’ students was inspiring. They were prepared to ask great questions about BRAVO!, the Vietnam War, and war in a more general sense. The questions ran the gamut from specifics like, “What did you eat?” “What was the weather like?” “What were the people over there like?” “Were you frightened?”

We talked about weather and cobras and leeches and 782 gear and living with rats for bunker mates. We talked about the siege of Khe Sanh and about death and injury and corpsmen and the monsoon. We talked about incoming and fear and what it was like to return here and deal with public opinion in 1968. They were really interested in that. They knew quite a bit about the history of the war. They knew where Vietnam was on the map. Some of them have already signed up to go into the military and others plan to pursue military careers. One young man desires to be an interpreter in the United States Army. In concert with his plan, he is already learning to speak both German and Arabic in addition to his other studies.

Some of the kids in those classes probably have no plans to serve our country in a military uniform. I was lead to that conclusion based on some of the questions they asked. “What do you think about war?” “Were all the deaths in Vietnam worth the results?” “Do you think it right that we are fighting in the Middle East?” “Do you believe in war?”

As I fielded those questions I found the profundity of the queries to be troubling. I am a man who generally tries to keep his opinions about this kind of stuff to himself. I wasn’t sure how to handle the situation, whether to hem and haw or whether to leap right in.

I hate war. I told them that. I told them that I love peace more than almost anybody. I told them that my job in Vietnam was search and destroy; to kill people. But I also told them that history is replete with humans killing each other and over the long run of millennia, most societies engage in war. Often it is offensive, often it is defensive, but nevertheless, it’s one of the things we have done and we do right now. I told them it’s one of the things that we as a species do best.

Most of these kids managed to maintain expressions that hid what they thought about the things I said, but I do know that when each of the six classes was over, a number of them approached and thanked me for talking to them and for serving the country.

Another shot of Ken Rodgers at Boise High School

Another shot of Ken Rodgers at Boise High School

Furthermore, Sandie Waters is a keg of dynamite. As you talk to her, you can feel all that energy, the excitement she brings to her work every day. Some folks tell me that teachers are overpaid and don’t work very much. That’s not what I saw. I saw dedication and preparation. I saw a teacher who commands the respect of her students. Students from a wide variety of ethnic groups and interests. What was happening in those classes when I was there was the business of education, query and curiosity.

I don’t know much about all the other school systems in this country. Some of them are undoubtedly a mess. By virtue of the number of towns and districts and cities we have, there are bound to be failures. But I bet, if we look closely, the majority of school systems are like the ones I have visited and the bulk of the instructors are like Mrs. Sandie Waters. And at least in Boise, Idaho, these students are learning about the Vietnam War.

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