Just a few days before Memorial Day, five Vietnam veterans from Marblehead, some with Purple Heart medals, came to speak to students at the high school about their experiences and how war changed their lives.
The MHS juniors had just finished reading “The Things They Carried,” a collection of semi-autobiographical stories by Tim O’Brien about a platoon of American soldiers fighting in Vietnam.
The students asked the veterans dozens of questions ranging from: How did you feel when you got your draft notice? Did you have a strong stance on the war? What was your role in the war? What was it like coming back home?
Each veteran met with a group of about six students. Boyden Batty shared photos of himself in Vietnam.
“It was chaos,” he said. “I was the new guy, and we started taking fire. We all dropped to the ground. I remember thinking, ‘Oh my God. They expect me to know what to do.’ It filled me with terror. I was more afraid of letting them down than of getting shot.”
Harry Christensen, who is now a lawyer, author and grandfather in town, shared how he still suffers from PTSD from his five months in Vietnam.
“We had to pick up the dead and wounded,” he told the students. “I have flashbacks all the time. When people ask me, ‘When were you in Vietnam?’ I answer, ‘In 1967, and last night.’”
Christensen said he is on all kinds of medications to help with the PTSD, but the attacks keep coming.
“If a truck goes by and makes a noise, my brain knows I’m here, but my heart thinks I’m still in Vietnam,” he said.
Christensen said coming home from the war was a real shock.
“The kids I went to school with were calling me a baby killer,” he recalled. “They said, ‘See those wounds you have; you deserve those.’ I didn’t kill any women or babies. Yes, I did kill men. And I saw men die — some I knew.”
Christensen said he even grew his hair long and started to dress like a hippy to avoid being called out as a former soldier.
Lester McLaughlin served in Vietnam for one year and met his third child for the first time when he came home. She was already six months old. It wasn’t necessarily an easy transition.
“On July Fourth, when I heard fireworks, I told my wife we better get these kids into the basement,” he said.
Buck Grader was against the war when he got called up.
“War is an absurdity,” the former Marine told the teenagers sitting around him. “If you die, you don’t pay the price. It’s your mother or father or wife who pays the price.”
Grader choked back tears as he talked about his own son, who served in Desert Storm. Grader remembered thinking, “I’ll go in his place. It still makes me well up every time I think about it.”
Vet Peter Merry was also opposed to the war and showed students an anguished self-portrait he made just days before shipping out.
English teacher Jennifer Billings had invited the veterans to speak.
“They are all getting older, so I love the chance to make connections with the students,” she said. “I treasure having them in.”
Billings has also assigned the students to write a 700-word essay on the “Faces of War” after interviewing someone connected to war in some way.