U.S. history students at San Benito High School heard history come alive when local Vietnam veterans came to campus. The vets shared their stories and answered questions on April 25 and 26.
SBHS Social Science Department Chair Derek Barnes partnered with the local Veterans of Foreign Wars post to give students a deeper understanding of the Vietnam War and the effect the war had on returning soldiers.
“Our goal is that you get something out of today,” Vietnam veteran Bernie Ramirez said to students. “The war has been over 50 years, but it’s still in us.”
Veterans shared their personal stories with students and explained what their lives were like before the Vietnam War, why they went to war, their experiences in Vietnam and what life was like when they returned the United States.
The task was no small feat for those who came to speak.
“I wholeheartedly invite you to ask us questions because 40 years ago we would not have been able to do this. We would have walked away,” veteran Dale Barnes said.
Veteran George Nava supported this view and explained that though it might be challenging to talk about the war, it was important to ensure that younger generations hear their stories before it was too late.
“I had to prep myself to get here,” Nava said. “If we don’t do it now, then when?”
Though their service dates and roles varied, the veterans were all raised in Hollister and came home from the war with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
“We came, we saw, we left. That was the three stages of Vietnam,” said Barnes. “The thing we didn’t know was that we brought something home with us.”
For Barnes and the other veterans present, this meant returning home but not being able to truly leave the effects of the war back in Vietnam.
“We were back in the world,” veteran Joe Ortiz said. “Why do I keep going back to Vietnam?”
The veterans also talked of different triggers that brought them back to war, such as dates that marked a particular event or the noise from fireworks on the Fourth of July.
“I’m another one with PTSD,” said veteran Ron Klauer. “I got out of the war in 1969. After that I was running always one step in front of this thing. When it sets in hard it’s hard for you to function properly.”
In addition to PTSD, veterans returning from Vietnam felt a lack of support from American society.
“People would spit at you, cuss you out, and call you baby killers. Because of that many veterans wouldn’t talk about it,” Ortiz said. “You couldn’t say you were a Vietnam veteran or that you fought for your country.”
“When you have your buddies getting wounded or killed and people are protesting and not supporting you, it’s pretty disheartening,” Ramirez said.
Looking to heal and change the patterns of the past, these men not only volunteered to speak to students but are also part of the local VFW chapter focused on supporting members of the military and the community at large.
The VFW supports the armed forces by sending care packages, as well as hanging banners in downtown Hollister for local, active members of the military. The banners are given to those members when they leave the service and return home.
The VFW also sponsors an annual golf tournament to raise money for local scholarships. Ramirez said $10,000 in scholarships will be awarded this year.
Though hesitant to speak of their service after returning home from Vietnam, these veterans showed unity and pride in their service when addressing the crowd at San Benito High. They also acknowledged the heartbreak of losing friends and loved ones to the war.
“All Vietnam veterans are brothers,” Ramirez said. “I’m a proud Vietnam veteran, but it was a loss of so many lives.”