In school, the horrors of the Vietnam War haunt the textbooks. The focus often is on the cause and effect of the war on society, sometimes missing the individual stories of those who fought.
A textbook couldn't tell you how one veteran carefully calculated the time it took them to reach under their bed to put on their vest in case combat occurred in the middle of the night. A book could never describe the fear in that soldier, or how their life changed after the war.
But through the Vietnam Poetry Project, nine Lincoln High School students went much deeper than any textbook, listening to the untold stories of veterans.
The project, made possible through a grant from the Lincoln Community Foundation, paired each student with a Vietnam veteran.
For Jack Buchanan, a senior at Lincoln High School and member of the school's state champion slam poetry team, it was his first time writing about someone else. His poem —“Do I tell you?”— shared the story of Vincent Orduna, a veteran who served as a U.S. Army aviator in Vietnam.
The veterans participating in the project, including Orduna, agreed on one thing. They’d like to be remembered as ordinary people, with difficult jobs.
“We’re just like everyone else,” Orduna said. “We’d like for everyone to treat us that way and teach their kids to do the same.”
Orduna, who recently retired from the Veterans Administration, told Buchanan what it was like being a black officer.
“They saw my badge and my rank first,” Orduna said. “My skin was last.”
Before going to war, Orduna knew he wanted to fly planes. So he went to aviation school. On the combat field, life was different, however.
Orduna grew to not make friends during the war, because it was too painful to lose them, he said. He discussed the hardships of war and how a soldier often had to make some of the hardest decisions in their life in a matter of seconds.
“You can’t go back and undo the things you did at war,” Orduna said. “That’s just how things were.”
Telling his story, however, helped him.
“For me, this was like reopening an old wound so it could heal,” Orduna said.
Each student was paired with a veteran, and they met for one 2- to 3-hour session, then for an additional hourlong session that was videotaped.
After their interviews, the students wrote slam poems, or “poetic pieces” based on what they’d learned.
On Sunday, students performed their poems for the veterans for the first time, with their readings interspersed with snippets of video from the interviews.
Chris Maly, an English teacher at Lincoln High, worked with NET and Red Rebel Media to carry out the project.
Cheryl Feala, who served as a second lieutenant in the Army, said telling her story to a Lincoln High student was both exciting and healing.
“This exceeded my expectations,” said Feala, who served as a nurse in Vietnam. “It’s a joy to meet someone who’s interested in this part of history.”
Feala joined the military though a program that paid for her senior year of nursing school at St. Elizabeth Hospital. She served two years, learning more than Feala might have in a traditional nursing program.
Things like IVs and stitches that were used on soldiers abroad weren’t used on patients at home, Feala said.
“I got to see them whole,” Orduna said. “She had to put them back that way.”
After hearing the veterans' stories, Buchanan admitted the first step in understanding is listening. Learning about the life that people have lived is important before making any kind of decision, he said.