Beloit Memorial High School (BMHS) freshmen were lugging around backpacks, artillery and weapons as part of an interactive presentation on Friday by U.S. Army Vietnam Veterans Bob Engstrom, Al Pacheco, Roger Manecke, Bill Nielsen and John Kettle.
After fielding some hardball questions by social studies teacher Chad Quamme’s students, the Vietnam Veterans of River Rock Chapter 236 displayed weaponry used to defend themselves and booby traps they hoped to avoid.
With Memorial Day on Monday, Vietnam Veterans as well as Veterans from WWII, Korean War and modern conflicts spoke throughout the day with classes at BMHS.
Quamme’s students spared no question, asking about Napalm, how it feels to take someone’s life, what booby traps were encountered and if the U.S. should have entered the war in the first place. With candor, the veterans addressed each question about the Vietnam war and its aftermath in their lives.
When asked if they had a “tour” of Vietnam or if they enjoyed the beaches, the men chuckled a bit as they tried to explain the challenges of a beautiful-yet-impoverished and dangerous country at war.
“We had no clue what we were walking into,” Kettle said.
Although the soldiers were trained that civilians were off limits and that there were two sides identified by uniforms, Engstrom said the Vietnam War had different rules.
“The Vietcong looked the same as village people, and you couldn’t tell the difference until you were shot at,” Engstrom said.
Heartbreakingly, Kettle said children and even infants would be used in the war by the Vietcong. Tiny babies with grenades tucked under their arms would be laid near the path to kill American soldiers who dared to pick them up.
“They didn’t have the same feeling about life we did,” Kettle said.
Engstrom said local kids would often want to climb up on American military trucks for gum or treats, although they were required to raise their arms to ensure they weren’t harboring weapons.
Day-to-day life was uncomfortable, although they adjusted. When it would rain during a monsoon, the men would grab soap in an attempt at a quick shower.
When asked about Napalm, Kettle explained how it was like a jelly which would stick to everything. Even from 300 yards away, one could still feel the oxygen sucked out of one’s lungs.
The men faced daily challenges from deadly booby traps. They recalled a ground device where a rope would trip sharpened bamboo stakes to stab up through a soldier’s boot. The stakes — covered with human feces — would result in instant infection in any soldier who had the misfortune of stepping on one.
The men explained they were fighting to protect the Vietnamese as well as each other. He said there is no worse feeling than being involved in taking someone’s life, although it sometimes was a matter of survival.
“Nobody hates the war more than the warrior,” Pacheco said.
Pacheco said it was difficult to adjust back home as people didn’t want to hear about their experiences. The men, who saw horrific things happen and were scarred for life, returned to protesters who called them “baby killers.” One of the Veterans recalled two protesters who wouldn’t board an airplane because he was on it.
Most of the men didn’t start opening up about their experiences for years. They would go on to have nightmares for at least a decade.
Kettle said there isn’t a day he doesn’t think of Vietnam in some way — when he sees a hill, a tree line or hears a song triggering his memory.
Engstrom and Pacheco, however, confided in their wives who became their biggest supporters.
“My wife became my therapist and best friend. The feelings of war are still there, but having someone who tries to understand makes life easier,” Engstrom said.
“She was the best therapist and had the patience to listen to me,” Pacheco said.
When asked if the U.S. should have joined the civil war in the first place, the men agreed it was “a good question,” but said they believe the U.S. could have won if the war was fought differently.
Despite their painful memories, Pacheco said serving one’s country makes him or her a better person and more able to appreciate life in the U.S.
“American’s the greatest country in the world because veterans paid the price,” Pacheco said.