Vietnam veterans share experiences, memories with Grand Forks Central students
Four Vietnam veterans showed a three-minute video and then spoke to students in Matthew Berglund’s social studies classes.
GRAND FORKS – They talked about what it was like to be 18 or 19 years old, barely out of high school, plucked from their families and dropped into a war zone a world away – a war zone of swamps and jungles infested with leeches, snakes and mosquitoes – and living with the shadow of death every day and night.
Four Vietnam veterans showed a three-minute video to students in Matthew Berglund’s journalism classes this week at Grand Forks Central High School, and then shared their experiences as U.S. Army soldiers in Southeast Asia in the late 1960s and early ‘70s.
To the sound of The Mamas and the Papas’ hit “California Dreamin',” the video captured somber scenes of young lanky men with rifles trudging through tall grass, helicopters dropping a deluge of bombs, aerial views of gray-white clouds of explosions in dense deep-green vegetation – taking the students to a place they could only begin to imagine.
The video ended. A gunshot rang out.
“It’s one of three scenarios,” Gary Benjamin told the students. “Either the sniper was a bad shot, or he wounded somebody, or he put a bullet in your head and you’re going home in a body bag.
“Those were the things we had to worry about.”
Benjamin and the other vets – Larry Young, Don Schultz and Wayne Berglund, Matthew Berglund’s father – spoke of fellow soldiers and best friends, shot and killed next to them, and back at home, their struggles with PTSD and survivor's guilt.
“I knew a guy who lost his legs,” Schultz said. “He was right beside me.”
A soldier was killed next to him, Young said. “I think of him; it’s been 53 years now. He was just married and his wife was pregnant. He never got to meet his son, be a dad or a grandpa, or go to school, or have an occupation.”
Berglund said, “We all ask this question once a week: Why not me?”
“We all have PTSD,” said Berglund, who, with other vets, attends a group session, led by a VA mental health social worker, that meets twice monthly at Hope Church.
Those sessions help them “let the demons go,” he said. Speaking to high school students also is therapeutic, several vets said.
They conveyed their personal war experiences to students who are only slightly younger than they were when they left for Vietnam.
“We were in a jungle,” Berglund said. “It was not a friendly place. … We were fighting the elements and the enemy, and local guerrillas. The North Vietnamese were well-equipped, with modern weaponry.”
In his 198th Infantry unit, “our job was ‘search and destroy,’ ” Schultz said, “and that’s what we did.”
Benjamin was a sniper in the war. Snipers, helicopter pilots and medivac personnel were the favorite targets of the North Vietnamese, he said.
The vets also talked about Agent Orange, the chemical herbicide and defoliant the military used for deforestation, and health problems that plague them decades after leaving Vietnam – including cancer, lung disorders and heart issues.
‘Educational and informative’
During the presentation, students listened quietly and seemed deeply attentive.
Afterward, NaVaeh Waters, a senior, said she was struck by “how much it means to them to be able to speak about this.”
The program was “informative for us – and was an outlet for them,” Waters said. “I learned what they went through and their jobs over there.”
Sophomore Xander Mullennax “got the satisfaction of welcoming them back, because most vets didn’t get welcomed back. They went to war for us, so they deserve more than most people can imagine."
The presentation “was very educational and informative,” Mullennax said.
Junior Lucas Solberg was “surprised” at the Vietnamese civilians’ negative response, he said. “I thought they’d be there to assist and support.”
Inviting vets to speak to classes of Central students started in 2008, when social studies teacher Erik Myrold, who teaches a Great Wars class, began inviting WWII vets, including Arne Bakke, a former principal.
In 2015, history teacher Tom Winger started inviting Vietnam veterans to give annual presentations at Central, first in his classroom and later in the auditorium where several classes attend at once.
Talk with vets in the family
The vets who spoke Wednesday encouraged the students to talk with family members about their military experiences.
“You are their outlet,” Berglund said. “You are so important to that vet.”
Of the 2.7 million veterans who served in Vietnam, only 800,000 remain, he said. About 47,000 died in combat, but altogether 58,274, including eight women, lost their lives.
About 15,000 North Dakotans served in Vietnam, and 199 were killed, Berglund said.
In Grand Forks County, 17 from Grand Forks – all Grand Forks Central grads – and one soldier from Inkster, North Dakota, died, he said.
Teacher Matthew Berglund said some students have called these veterans’ presentations “their favorite lesson of the whole year.”
At the presentation this week, each veteran gave personal accounts of their experiences during the war and beyond to inform and enlighten a young generation for whom Vietnam may be only a passage in a textbook.
“I hope they understand what we went through was hell,” Benjamin said, “and that they don’t ever have to do that.”