History comes alive at Oregon Middle School
Students in Andy Bacon’s social studies class got a history lesson last week they could never have gotten from a textbook.
Army veteran Bill Dickhut spoke to the eighth-graders last Wednesday about his tour in Vietnam, ahead of Veterans Day, this Saturday, Nov. 11. It’s the third year Dickhut, grandfather to one of Bacon’s students, offered to come in and talk to students at Oregon Middle School in Medford. “I find it rewarding,” he said. “I never really was able to talk much about it. It was a life-altering experience.”
That changed, he said, when his first grandson was born in 1998. “I looked at him, so tiny in the hospital, and hoped he would never have to experience what I experienced,” he said. After the 9/11 attacks in 2001, Dickhut said he began seeking treatment for PTSD at the VA Hospital in Northport.
Though the class hasn’t gotten to Vietnam yet in their studies, Bacon connected the idea of imperialism as a motive for war to the students, who are currently studying late-19th and early-20th century wars, like the Spanish-American War and World War I, which the U.S. entered 100 years ago this year.
In his talk, Dickhut was blunt with the students about his experience: the draft, being sent so far from home, conflict, and life after the war with PTSD. “There were times where we were losing in combat up to 300 people a week. It was horrendous, a situation that our human condition … we were never supposed to experience anything like this,” he said, quietly.
He was drafted at 24 — later than most — and had already been married to his wife, Linda, for three years at that point. He recalled being wounded in the arm, chest and leg in December 1968, later receiving a Purple Heart for his service and bravery. “Fortunately that night, no one died,” he said, adding that he remembers having to stop the bleeding of a comrade. “I was kneeling on his neck. We took care of each other because we wanted to get home.”
After he was taken to a hospital, a student wondered how he was able to communicate with Linda back home. “I managed to find a phone and call home,” he said, noting that communicating in those days was nothing like it is today. Linda told the students that she immediately panicked. “I didn’t know if he was really OK,” she said. “Because I couldn’t see him.”
The students asked Dickhut about all aspects of his experience in the war, taking down notes as their eyes widened and jaws dropped. “What’s the worst thing you saw?” one student asked. His response was frank: “A dead American.” (He said the second worst thing was sometimes not having clean water to drink.)
“What was combat like?” another student wondered. “It felt like hours, but it lasted just minutes,” Dickhut replied. His granddaughter, Kelleigh Dougherty, asked her grandfather about what the soldiers did to lift their spirits in their free time. “We wrote letters; letters from your grandmother made me smile,” he said. “And getting rice or chocolate pudding from home.”
The most important point Dickhut stressed in his remarks was to respect veterans. To give the students context, he explained that coming home was “the second war” Vietnam veterans fought. “America was going through quite a change and we represented everything that was wrong with America; all of the maladies that the country had, it was our fault. But we were just doing what was asked of us,” he said. He advised the teenagers to cherish their lives and country “despite its faults.”
Now 73, Dickhut lives with his wife in Brentwood, and he’s glad to see things changed today as veterans return home, and said that veterans of recent wars are thankful to Vietnam veterans because of what they went through. “They know people are not going to disrespect them,” he said.
Dickhut’s daughter, Denise Dougherty, attended the talk and was moved by her father’s words. She explained that hearing him finally talk about his experience has answered so many questions. She recalled, for example, watching the movie “Forrest Gump” as a teenager with her family. “I remember he had to leave the room. He didn’t say anything, he just walked out,” she said. “Growing up, I had no concept of what he was going through. But now I see why he sits in certain places if we go out to eat — his back is never to the door. When a helicopter is overhead, he reacts a certain way.”
Bacon related that insight to the importance of studying history. “You might pooh-pooh history and say, ‘why do we have to study this?’ but ask your parents and grandparents questions. You’ll have a better understanding of who they are and maybe why they are that way, because of what was going on in the world,” he told his students as the bell rang. “You can learn things about the people you love and history at the same time.” His students now see why. “It was so exciting to hear from the firsthand experience of someone who received a Purple Heart in war,” said eighth-grader Connor Lake.
It’s something Bacon wishes he was able to talk about with his own father, a military veteran who passed away over the summer. “One of the things I’m proudest of is that he served, but he never spoke about it. I don’t think it was a big deal to him,” Bacon said. “But in the last couple of months, I’ve had a lot of questions and realizations.”
Bacon, who has been teaching for 21 years, said that his favorite part is bringing in speakers and making history class more exciting. “It brings it to life,” he said. “History is not just dead people in books.”
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