More than 100 friends and relatives welcomed home more than two dozen veterans with local ties to the Brandon community in a recent ceremony at Armwood High School.
They showered the veterans with gratitude during a buffet dinner. The event featured patriotic songs, dedications and a speech from Armwood Principal Mike Ippolito. It was fitting for any military member that faced combat in Iraq, Afghanistan or other theaters in the global war on terror.
This tribute, however, did not salute those forces from our most recent military conflicts, but veterans of the Vietnam War.
For the 13th consecutive year, they gathered on April 30, the day the South Vietnamese capital of Saigon fell in 1975, to commemorate the symbolic end of the Vietnam War and share stories with a generation unfamiliar with the conflict.
Students from Armwood, Freedom, Newsome and Spoto interviewed the vets and/or their families as part of the elective course, "The History of the Vietnam War."
Ron Dyches, a social studies teacher at Newsome, began the elective course in 1998 while teaching at Bloomingdale to encourage students to discuss the topic with relatives who were Vietnam veterans. The result is a compilation of stories in an annual book titled Oral Histories of the Vietnam War.
"It's got to be done every year,' said Bruce Burnham, a social studies teacher from Armwood who helps edit the oral histories. "It's time to honor them."
Burnham personally identifies with the stories because he served in Vietnam. A military police soldier in the Army, he vividly recalls being on the last plane that withdrew from Vietnam carrying American troops and prisoners of war on March 29, 1973.
He said Vietnam vets didn't get the reception they deserved when they returned in the early 1970s, and he wants to continue recognizing them every year. He teams with Dyches along with teachers Tiffany Carr (Freedom) and Ross Webster (Spoto) to implement the program.
This year, Volume XIII of the oral histories was dedicated to Jim "Rambo" LaGarde, 64, a member of the 2004 Volume V roll call who is now battling cancer.
LaGarde served in the Army's 9th Aviation Battalion — the aviation element of the 9th Infantry Division. He was a door gunner in a UH-1D helicopter, one of the more than 7,000 "Hueys" used in the Vietnam War.
"It's outstanding, I'm overwhelmed," LaGarde said. "I love my family. They mean everything to me. I love my country, I just don't like what my government does."
Like many veterans, LaGarde shares stories with anyone willing listen. That's why as the vice president of the Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 787, he is a driving force in the chapter's speakers bureau that has offered lectures in local schools for the past nine years.
What you won't hear LaGarde brag about are his medals or rank. What he does speak about captivates the students and ends up on tests. He speaks openly of dropping out of high school, spending time as a welder and battling bladder cancer.
"The kids love me," said LaGarde, who wears a leather vest full of patches and encourages students not to succumb to pressures.
"At the end of the two days I tell them 'suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem.' "
In 13 years, more than 3,000 students from Armwood, Bloomingdale, Freedom, Newsome and Spoto high schools have compiled more than 500 oral histories. This year's compilation includes stories from approximately a dozen veterans who attended the event and Roger Spradlin, who was honored posthumously. Just 72 days into his 1965 tour with Army C Company, 2nd Battalion, 2nd Infantry, Spradlin, the company leader, died in an ambush that killed 98, wounded 250 and saw only 58 live to tell about it.
The inaugural volume is on display with other books at the Library of Congress information center in Washington.
According to Bob Patrick, the director of the Veterans History Project in the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, Volume I isn't incorporated in the larger Veterans History Project because it's not in the required format.
Patrick and Burnham said they are working together to provide missing volumes to the library and preserve more Vietnam veterans' oral histories.
Eric Vician can be reached at [email protected]