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Kaleidoscopic Vietnam voyage uses history, lit, film, oral interviews

August 2, 2016
Elisabeth Sherwin -- gizmo@dcn.davis.ca.us

This article is from Sunday, April 11, 2004 and is new material by Elisabeth Sherwin at this web site.

Eric Schroeder designed this class using elements of history, literature, film, food, oral interviews, field trips, veterans and art to help his students understand the Vietnam War.

Schroeder taught the class winter quarter 2004 at UC Davis.

"It was the best class I taught last quarter," he said. The class was open to only 18 students, first-year honors students in the Integrated Studies program.

One of his students was Helaine Kwong, 18, of Vacaville, who was born 10 years after the Vietnam War ended in 1975.

"I knew nothing about the war aside from the fact that there was one," she said recently. "The class did a very good job telling me about stuff I wanted to know and stuff I didn't know I wanted to know."

Cinematic view

On Monday nights the students -- all of whom live in Miller dormitory on campus -- gathered to watch a documentary or feature film about the war.

"Apocalypse Now," "The Green Berets," "Platoon," "The Deer Hunter," "Full Metal Jacket" and "Rambo" were viewed.

Kwong said "The Deer Hunter" was the most memorable of the movies.

Schroeder also use Loren Baritz's "Backfire," as the primary history text for the class, and had students read fiction and nonfiction works by veterans and correspondents including Tim O'Brien's "The Things They Carried" and "Dispatches" by Michael Herr.

Works by Vietnamese writers included Bao Ninh's "The Sorrow of War," and Eve Sinaiko's "Vietnam Reflexes and Reflections."

Vietnamese short-story writer Andrew Lam of the Bay Area was a guest speaker at one of the classes, as was Sacramento artist and veteran Mike Kelley.

The students took a field trip to the Vietnam Memorial in Sacramento and had a Vietnamese dinner catered by a local restaurant on the last movie night.

"Many of them had never eaten Vietnamese food," Schroeder said.

At the last class, students gave art talks focusing on works by Vietnam veterans.

Each student also was required to conduct an oral interview with a veteran.

Kwong interviewed a neighbor's friend, Marine Sgt. Terry Rossiter of Vacaville.

"That was really interesting," she said. "He had a lot to say. Here's a direct quote from him: 'I'm a very, very bitter man.'

"He was pro the war at first and then his view changed," she said.

Written and audio interviews with the veterans, which will be forwarded to a collection at the Library of Congress, can be found at: www.news.ucdavis.edu/vietnam/histories.lasso. The collection also includes an interview with Dr. Priscilla Boekelheide of Davis who served as a civilian doctor in Vietnam.


Schroeder particularly wanted his students to think about the implications of the Vietnam War in relationship to the fighting in Iraq. It wasn't a topic specifically addressed in class, but the connections were hard to avoid.

"Some of the parallels are astonishing," Schroeder said. "Vietnam continues to remain timeless as a watershed event in our history and with its connections to Iraq. Plus, teachers like to work with good material and the books and movies about Vietnam stand up well."

"There are some parallels," Kwong said. "The oral history people mentioned them a lot. I can definitely see parallels but the war in Iraq is still ongoing so I don't know."

Another student was more emphatic.

"Iraq is turning into a similar situation," said Scott Homrighausen, 18, from Orange County. "Bush is ignoring the lessons learned. It does scare me a little. The people in Iraq don't want us there just like the people in Vietnam, both the North and the South, didn't want us there."

Honoring soldiers

Homrighausen says he has great respect for the men and women who served in Vietnam.

"It wasn't their choice to go there," he said. "They were doing a job."

If put in the same situation, Homrighausen said he would enlist only if he was threatened by the draft. If he had a student deferment, he would not volunteer.

Homrighausen chose to do his oral interview with Kelley of Sacramento, whose work he also chose to highlight for his art project.

He was struck in particular by one of Kelley's stories about the war. The incident occurred soon after Kelley arrived in Vietnam. He was riding in a truck that stopped to pick up a hitchhiker, who turned out to be an American deserter living in a hut nearby.

That was one of Kelley's first realizations that things in Vietnam weren't going the way they were supposed to.

Davis City Councilman Ted Puntillo served in Vietnam for one year, 1967-68, when he was 19. He was with the military police in Saigon.

Puntillo is the veterans' affairs coordinator for Yolo County. He was recently interviewed by a history student in a different Schroeder class at UCD about his experience.

"I was always proud that I enlisted and volunteered to serve over there," he said. "And I'm proud of our guys who go to Iraq now."

Puntillo felt it was his duty to go to Vietnam. It also taught him about life and death.

"I was 19 and I'd been living in Sacramento for 19 years," he said. "So Vietnam was a big thing in my life."

But what about Iraq?

"It's a hopeless cause," he said. "We can't win. I support the military, not the strategy to get to the final mission."

History lesson

Puntillo said he was delighted to see students taking an interest in Vietnam.

"They don't know anything about D-Day, Korea, Pearl Harbor or Vietnam," he said. "When I was their age, I knew all about WWII and Korea. I was an expert on World War II."

Chris Knight, 19, of Glen Ellen, was one of Schroeder's IS students who came into the class knowing something about the Vietnam War.

"I was interested in the war and had seen more of the movies than other students," he said. "I came to the class with some knowledge but no strong opinions."

Knight said his favorite class took place the day three veterans visited: Kelley of Sacramento, John Nesbitt of Sacramento and Chuck Lewis of Martinez.

"All had extensive combat experience," Knight said. "They had exciting and amazing experiences and some were very scary."

New outlooks

He was struck by the fact that two of three veterans now favor a universal draft. Clearly, children of privilege who had student deferments did not serve in the Vietnam War at the same rate as blacks, Hispanics or those without student deferments.

Knight also observed that Americans are just as culturally ignorant about Iraq as they were about Vietnam.

"Our troops should have known how to police before going into a policing situation," he said.

"We were not justified going into Iraq in the first place," he added. "But maybe some good can come out of it."

"The Vietnam War is more in my consciousness now and I connect it to other current events," Knight said.

Finally, how did the students do in the class? Homrighausen, Kwong and Knight all got A's.

-- Reach Elisabeth Sherwin at gizmo@dcn.org

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