SEFFNER — Armwood High School senior Caitlen Edwards knew three certainties when she enrolled in the History of the Vietnam War elective class last fall.
She knew that social studies teacher Bruce Burnham would play Vietnam-era music every day and invite guests to give firsthand accounts about the conflict. And she knew that she would interview a Vietnam veteran.
But she never expected the class to alter her career path. Caitlen, 17, listened to veterans talk about the unforgettable faces of death and the smell of war.
"I tried to picture that and how that can mess with your mind," said Caitlen, who is vice president of Armwood's National Honor Society, editor in chief of the yearbook and secretary of the history club.
But when she heard veterans tell how people mistreated them upon returning from Southeast Asia, she committed to majoring in psychology at the University of South Florida and someday opening a practice to counsel military members suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
"That blew my mind that people were disrespectful like that," she said.
Caitlen and her classmates, along with students from Freedom High and Spoto High, have compiled detailed stories from Vietnam veterans in a book titled Oral Histories of the Vietnam War, Volume XV. They plan to share these accounts and properly "welcome home" 23 veterans at the school in a patriotic ceremony at 6 p.m. Wednesday, the anniversary of the day the South Vietnamese capital of Saigon fell in 1975, symbolizing the end of the Vietnam War.
Burnham, who teaches the course, served as a military policeman who patrolled the city of Da Nang during the war. He earned a bronze star for his service but threw it away during a time when veterans did not outwardly express military service patriotism in their civilian life.
"For many Vietnam veterans, they weren't welcomed home," said Burnham, who was on the last plane that withdrew from Vietnam carrying American troops and prisoners of war on March 29, 1973. "They didn't get treated fairly."
Caitlen, captain of the Hawks swim team for two years, thought about joining the Navy because of her familiarity with the water. With a nod to her grandfather, who served in the Army during World War II, she serves food as a volunteer at VFW Post 8108 in Riverview, helping to raise money for the VA hospital and the Veterans Memorial Park and Museum in Tampa.
She is one of more than 500 Hillsborough County students who chose to enroll in the History of the Vietnam War class this school year. It's an elective that Ron Dyches began in 1998 when he taught at Bloomingdale High School.
Six districts offered the class last fall and 10 are implementing it this spring semester, according to the Florida Department of Education. Hillsborough leads the way with 551 students enrolled, followed by Duval (207) and Brevard (115).
"I'm a Vietnam veteran so it matters a little more to me," Burnham said.
Eric Vician can be reached at [email protected]
Here are four snapshots excerpted from the Vietnam veteran oral histories compiled by students at Armwood High and Spoto High.
Thomas Rayburn, U.S. Army, 1966-1967 and 1969-1971
Rayburn participated in search-and- destroy combat operations during the dry season, but later was told to not fire unless fired at. He was road security and did blocking positions during the rainy season.
His job was to travel the roads to keep the Vietcong from planting mines. The tanks weighed 52 tons and could easily sink in the mud during the rainy season. Throughout the year, his tank hit four mines. The tanks were equipped with three guns.
One day, Rayburn was searching the dead Vietnamese after combat and was saddened to see that one of the bodies was a young woman. He said he can still feel the skin of the bodies he searched and buried. Rayburn and his fellow soldiers buried 656 enemy soldiers on March 21, 1967. The dozer tank dug the graves and Rayburn can still picture the scenes of burying dead. Rayburn and Joe Henry worked as a team to bury the dead. The unit was awarded the presidential citation for their actions.
Interviewed by Kyle Green, Caitlen Edwards (author), Daniel Mercado, Danny Hernandez and Devron Knight
James Childers, U.S. Army, 1965-1969
He was a door gunner when he got the chance. He also got caught up in a four-hour close combat, so he did see a good amount of action. He lost good friends, not in that battle, but being as young as he was, he wasn't ready to lose someone.
One day his company was doing some scoping 40 miles north of Saigon when they got a call from Bravo saying they had Kool-Aid. James' company wanted some, of course, so they went off-track in pursuit of Bravo. He took an AK-47 with him.
James ended up face to face with a North Vietnamese who looked like an officer. The Vietnamese officer pulled the trigger and pointed at James. It snapped. So James shot him seven times. He says it was one of the luckiest moments of his life.
Interviewed by Josh Parrish, James Childers (great-nephew) and Makaylea Zavalick (author).
Salvatore DiFonzo, U.S. Marines, 1967-1971
We got hit pretty much every other night and always at the same spots. It was kind of easy to stay out of the line of fire. that is up until December 1968. On Dec, 20, 1968, the Vietcong coordinated hits on all the airfields, including Chu Lai. We took incoming small-arms fire, rockets and mortar. We couldn't get our planes off the ground to return fire. This barrage lasted all night and caused quite a bit of damage.
The aircraft were protected by huge revetments that separated each aircraft. Our bunkers were the tops of these revetments. I couldn't get up and into the bunker fast enough as the Vietcong started walking rockets and mortar down our way.
During the assault, seven Marines from Marine Aircraft Group 13 were killed when the bunker they were in took a direct hit. MAG-13 was less than a mile from us. We sustained heavy damage. At least 15 aircraft were destroyed. No lives were lost in our air group.
Interviewed by Paloma Narvaez and Sasha McGill, written by Salvatore DiFonzo
Tony Towers, U.S. Navy, 1969-1970
While in the Navy, he was assigned to an oiler and his job was to help other ships refuel. His job was always in the ships themselves, so Mr. Towers never experienced combat. He never came in contact with the enemy.
He did witness a lot of unpleasant moments where he saw some fellow soldiers die. While in the carrier, one of the wires dispatched and it cut the head off one of his fellow soldiers. It was hard for him because it was someone he knew and to see him die like that made him really emotional.
He also saw one of the soldiers in combat go up to a little Vietnamese boy with good intentions, not knowing that the boy had a bomb strapped to his body that blew up both of them.
Interviewed by Candace Wise, James Martin, Beatriz Miguel (author), Shawn Pomales and Alfredo Merino-Carmona.