Talk at Automotive High School

Anthony Wallace and I spoke today at Automotive High School, in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, to a ‘learning community’ that had spent several weeks reading and discussing Tim O’Brien’s Vietnam War novel, The Things We Carried. We were honored by the invitation.

The Principal, Mrs. Lafergola-Stanczuk and her staff made us feel welcome, and the students were well behaved and well prepared. They even gave us both gift bags filled with a remarkable array of Automotive High School items, for which I am very grateful.

The event took place in the auditorium. In preparation, students had created a replica of a fragment of the Vietnam Memorial Wall in Washington, DC.

Wallace at Automotive HS May 2 2014_MG_2024

The students had taken care to place on their replica the names of Thurman Wolfe, Joseph DiGregorio and William DiSantis. These men were members of a squad Sgt. Wallace commanded as part of B Co, 2nd Bn, 7th Cavalry, 1st Cavalry Division, when he served in Vietnam in 1970.

These men have a special significance for Mr. Wallace. The reason is explained in a note left on the Virtual Wall. It reads: “On the night of 15/16 April 1970, Fire Support Base Atkinson, located about 4 miles northwest of Dong Xoai in Tay Ninh Province, was attacked by a reinforced battalion from the 95C NVA Regiment. The fight resulted in 25 US wounded in action and 7 dead.”

Wolfe, DiGregorio and DiSantis were killed. Wallace was wounded among the wounded.

When he saw those names on the replica wall, Mr. Wallace offered them a military salute, as he does every time he reports for service as a National Park Service Yellow Hat at the Wall in Washington.

After an introduction by Mrs. Lafergola-Stanczuk, I spoke for about five minutes in an effort to place Sgt. Wallace’s comments in context. I told the students about American casualties in Vietnam, gave them some factual information about their chances of being wounded, had they been an infantry soldier during the war years.

Mr. Wallace followed, and told him of his personal experience.

Easily the most interesting part of the event was the question-and-answer session. The students had clearly come prepared with questions to ask, based on their understanding of the Tim O’Brian novel.

Students wanted to know if Mr. Wallace had experienced racism while in the American military, and whether or not he would serve again, given the opportunity to go back in time. He told them that as an African-American man, he well understood the special burdens American citizenship placed on people of color, but nevertheless believed then, and continues to think, that citizens have obligations to their nation.

He told them that one reason he felt good about his service is that the American military at the time, in his opinion, offered rapid advancement to anyone, regardless of color, if they were proven capable. He reminded them that in order to become a noncommissioned officer he had to take tests and receive qualifying scores, and that once admitted to NCO school, he was evaluated according to a system that paid no attention to color, but rather competence. As a result, he graduated fifth in his class from NCO school.

Students wanted to know about the psychological impact of service in Vietnam. One asked if he suffered from post traumatic stress, and another wondered if he suffered from “shell shock.” While he indicated he did not suffer from shell shock while in Vietnam, and continues to believe that he does not suffer from post traumatic stress disorder, he nevertheless acknowledges that other people have suggested that at least some of his behaviors, such as sleeplessness, could be related to PTSD.

Because so much of the media image of the Vietnam War involves depictions of American military personnel killing civilians, students wanted to talk about that. He was asked if he had seen civilians and/or children killed. He said no; in Tay Ninh Province he saw almost no civilians at all. He did recount an incident in which he watched a young boy, perhaps 9 or 10 years old, disassemble and reassemble an America M-16 rifle in a fashion that suggested that the young man knew precisely what he was doing, just as a soldier might.

Other questions circled around the issue of killing in combat. One individual asked about the personal items he carried while in Vietnam, and Mr. Wallace explained that, among other things, he carried his Holy Bible, and tried to read it as often as he could, sometimes by moonlight, and on other occasions under a tarpaulin, by flashlight.

Given that, students were interested in the potential ethical and moral conflict between the Bible’s attitude toward killing and his obligations as a soldier. Mr. Wallace explained that as an American soldier in a combat situation, it was too late to worry about biblical injunctions against killing. At that time, he used his rifle as quickly and accurately as he could, because if he did not, the enemy surely would.

The students were engaged enough to listen through two class periods, and we joined a small group of them for coffee and muffins in the principal’s conference room. We spoke with them briefly, and learned a little bit about their thoughts concerning the O’Brian novel.

All in all, it was a privilege to be asked to visit Automotive, and Mr. Wallace and I would be delighted to do it again.

Automotive HS May 2 2014

Anthony Wallace blogs about his expeiences

Anthony Wallace, profiled in my book Bringing It All Back Home, has written about his experience in Vietnam at “Your Stories, Your Wall,” the official blog of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund.

Today he is a “Yellow Hat” volunteer at the Wall, acting as a guide and teacher to people who visit the Wall on the National Mall in Washington, DC.

As he says, “Therefore, at this point I feel I have gone full circle…civilian, grunt, wounded in action, healed of survivors guilt, able to share and volunteer at The Wall.  God, what else do you want me to do?”

Combat to Campus: Veterans at CUNY/CUNY TV Program Description

From the CUNY TV web site:

On this month’s show, we look at veterans and veteran’s services across the CUNY spectrum. The Office of Veterans Affairs offers many things to CUNY vets, and we look at the center as well as four veterans who have benefited from CUNY veterans services. Brooklyn College’s Philip F. Napoli wrote an oral history on the Vietnam War that disputes the stereotype of Vietnam war vets as debilitated, and we chat with him and two of the vets from the book, one of whom is a BC graduate as well. Jane Katz, a 50-year teaching ‘vet’ of CUNY and former US Olympic medal winner, talks about her new swim therapy program for vets, W.E.T.S. for Vets. Barry Mitchell visits with ex-Marine and now high school math teacher, Ana Mojocoa of Queens College. And we revisit the story of Garen and Anna Marshall – Garen defused bombs in the Iraq War and went on to graduate from Baruch College.

Broadcast Schedule:

  • Wednesday, April 30 – 8:00am, 2:00pm, 10:00pm
  • Saturday, May 3 – 3:30pm
  • Sunday, May 11 – 8:00am, 8:00pm
  • Wednesday, May 14 – 8:00am, 2:00pm, 10:00pm
  • Saturday, May 17 – 3:30pm

Chanel 75 on time Warner Cable in Manhattan.

Eventually, video will be available here.

Interview with Peggy Cornett

One of my favorite interviews for demonstrating my preferred interview technique was conducted in 2005 with Peggy L. Cornett.*

That November I traveled to Washington DC to assist the Texas Tech University Vietnam Center and Archive as they collected oral histories with the men who had served and fought with the 1st Calvary Division at the Battle of Ia Drang Valley, in 1965, and their families.

This was the 40th anniversary of the battle, and many veterans and their families had come to Washington to pay their respects at the Vietnam Memorial wall on the National Mall, and to attend a gala banquet hosted by General Harold G. Moore and journalist Joseph L. Galloway.

Over a very intense weekend I conducted 18 interviews, most of them relatively short, running between 45 minutes and an hour.

In the course of those interviews I met and interviewed Peggy L. Cornett, whose brother 1st Lt. Donald Cornett had been killed in the fighting.

Peggy volunteered to be interviewed, because she felt she had a story to share about her brother and the aftermath of his death. She wanted to make sure that her — and his — experience was memorialized in the Texas Tech Vietnam archive. She came in the room knowing what she wanted to say.

What I like about this interview is the fact that the momentum develops naturally. After speaking a few introductory words, I let Peggy have the floor, to say what she needed to say. I did what I try to teach my undergraduate oral history students to do; that is to say, I placed my hands underneath me; I sat on them. I leaned forward in my chair, and I gave Peggy my full attention. I tried to focus on her eyes as I listened. I didn’t interrupt her or stop the flow of her words for at least 12 minutes. When I did so, it was only in order to request a clarification, and then I fell silent again, until she finished that segment of the interview.

Now, of course I don’t know for certain that my body posture and behavior played a significant role in the resulting narrative that Peggy shared. But what I can say is that what followed was  a very intense 12 – 14 minute story of her life.

She told of growing up with her brother, and why he was so important to her. She spoke of her deep family history and brought the story up to 1965. Then she described what happened when her family learned that Don had been killed. At that point, the narrative turned inward, as Peggy began to relate the impact of his death on her. She used a story of a dream she recalls having soon after he died as a way of illustrating its identity – shattering impact. The dream story itself illustrates powerfully symbolic themes in her life, with its emphasis on earth, water, burial and regrowth. And she spoke of how she and her mother began to come to grips with Don’s passing, and the way that grieving process influenced her life, long – term.

If you listen to the interview, you will hear that Peggy is a gifted storyteller. I have often compared this narrative to the kind of short story you might read in New Yorker magazine. I claim no credit for the power of her narrative, of course.

But, if you want to know how I interview, look at this video and watch me, effectively ‘disappear,’ as she makes clear what’s important to her.

This is my goal in interviewing.

I am not the most important person in the room — my interviewee is. I want their recollections to flow, relatively untrammeled by interruptions. I want access to the past, as the interviewee recalls it, in all of it’s color and emotional intensity.

I am not a journalist, seeking some specific bit of information; nor am I a therapist, trying to heal. I’m an oral historian functioning as a student, trying to “gather a little knowledge,” as one of Alessandro Portelli’s interviewees said to him.

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*Interview with Peggy L. Cornett,  11 November 2005, Peggy L. Cornett Collection, The Vietnam Center and Archive, Texas Tech University. Accessed 25 Apr. 2014. <http://www.vietnam.ttu.edu/virtualarchive/items.php?item=OH0481>.

Oral History and the Present

At bottom, oral history is about telling stories and thinking about their meaning. John Del Vecchio, author of The 13th Valley and other books about Vietnam and Vietnam veterans, once wrote that “The story we tell ourselves of ourselves, individually or culturally, creates our self-image. Behavior, individually and culturally, is consistent with self-image. Story determines behavior. As story changes, self-image changes; as self-image changes, behavior changes; as behavior changes, so too changes the results of behavior. That is, personal and cultural story have ramifications.”[1]

Del Vecchio is right. How we think about ourselves, and how we tell others about our past, has a direct and practical impact on the present. Oral history makes this clear.

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[1] John M. Del Vecchio, “The Importance of Story: Individual and Cultural Effects of Skewing the Realities of American Involvement in Southeast Asia for Social, Political and/or Economic Ends,”  (http://www.vietnam.ttu.edu/vietnamcenter/events/1996_Symposium/96papers/story.htm) 6 June, 2004.

Review in ARMY Magazine

There is a nice review of Bringing It All Back Home in the April edition of ARMY, the magazine of the Association of the United States Army.

Assistant Managing Editor Jeremy Dow writes:

Bringing It All Back Home is more than just a collection of biographical sketches of veterans. Napoli writes about positive traits and experiences of Vietnam War veterans that need to be recognized. In doing so, however, he does more than just tell the reader about veterans of a conflict that ended several decades ago; he reminds us that their sacrifices deserve as much attention and appreciation as those of today’s veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan.”

Read the full review after the jump.