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Making History While Recording History

High-schoolers’ oral history project revisits Vietnam through the stories and memories of its veterans

Southern High School history teacher Jennifer Davidson, above, worked with local Vietnam veterans for her students’ oral history project. <<photos by Sarah Wyer>>
      No event in American history is more misunderstood than the Vietnam War. It was misreported then, and it is misremembered now.
–Richard Nixon
 
      It is a bit unsettling to read this polarizing quote from, of all people, Richard Nixon. But the truth of the statement and of the war itself is an unsettling and polarizing historical record. For the students at Anne Arundel County’s Southern High School, finding out the truth of the Vietnam War straight from the lips of the veterans who were there is nothing less than a unifying historical event.
      “I felt it,” said freshman Andrew Huber, describing how the stories he heard affected him as he interviewed Navy veteran Reginald Mitchell.
      “What he went through during the war hit me like a brick wall,” Huber said. 
      Mitchell, Huber’s uncle, is a man he’s known most of his life.
      “I know him, but I didn’t know about him or that he was even in a war,” Huber says. “It definitely changed the way I look at history and changed the way I see him. He’s an incredible man.” 
      For the third year, students and veterans have joined together for the school’s Signature program’s oral history project, Maryland Veterans: A Journey through Vietnam. It is a project that hits close to home for Southern history teacher Jennifer Davidson. Her grandfather served in Korea and Vietnam, and her father also served during Vietnam.
      “Neither one would talk about it,” Davidson says. “And now they’re gone. Their stories will never be told.”
      Fortunately for the veterans being interviewed and for their families, these video stories will live on in the files housed in the Maryland State Archives.
       “The students are amazing,” Davidson says. “They rose to the challenge of learning the process of video recording, transcribing the interviews and editing. Most had never done anything like this before.”
      They also learned resilience, for the stories they hear are often brutal.
      “After hearing the stories of the horrors of war,” their teacher explains, “they would leave the interview room with a look that I can only describe as shell-shocked.”
      Drawing out such stories from the well of the veterans’ emotional experiences is another lesson. They consider their questions and word them carefully. Dr. Barry Lanman — director of the Martha Ross Center for Oral History, who has conducted more than 1,000 video interviews for some 30 oral history programs — helped tutor the students through the process. 
       Sometimes the best questions are ones an adult would never think of asking.
       “One interview wasn’t going very well,” Davidson recalls. “The veteran was very reluctant to speak about what had happened, so the interviewer, a young freshman, just blurted out if he had seen any unusual animals while in Vietnam.
       “I cringed, thinking, this won’t get us anywhere. But what do I know? The veteran told a hilariously harrowing story about a ferocious tiger that got caught up in a water storage tarp in the middle of the night on a firebase. No one wanted to shine a light on it for fear of enemy attack, and no one wanted to help the giant agitated cat out of its dilemma. They didn’t know what to do, so they left it there hissing and clawing until it found its own way out. The laughter broke the ice, and the veteran went on to tell his whole story.” 
        Many veterans still find it difficult to talk about the war. Some still relive it in the most seemingly innocuous circumstances. It took Army Airborne veteran Leon Young 30 years to attend a Fourth of July fireworks event.
      “The explosions put me right back there,” says Young, a bit misty-eyed but smiling. “Talking about it, especially with these young people who don’t judge me, has been a liberating experience. When I came home from the war, no one wanted to talk to me except to yell at me about atrocities I had personally never committed. They spit at me and threw rocks. I’ve carried the memories and kept them inside for far too long.”
       Now kids are helping them find their way out.
      The students are “making history while recording history,” says Phoebe Stein of the co-sponsoring Maryland Humanities, who lauds the school’s program “as the national model for educational oral history projects.”