Alumni share Vietnam memories
Lee Chilcote '64, James Laughlin III '64 and Bud McGrath '64 shared their experiences serving in Vietnam as members of the United States military with members of history professor Edward Miller's 35-student class on the Vietnam War on Thursday evening.
The panel, which took place in Filene Auditorium, was coordinated by class representative Phil Schaefer '64, who is auditing Miller's class and recently contacted nearly 50 members of the Class of 1964 for vignettes related to their time in Vietnam. Schaefer said he plans to publish a book composed of these stories in late summer as the class nears its 50th reunion year.
The veterans introduced themselves and spent the remaining hour responding to student questions and recounting anecdotes that to them were familiar memories of youth, but to students were first-person accounts of history.
The three veterans joined the Reserve Officer's Training Corps at the College as first-year students.
"When we got here, the ROTC was right up there in popularity with the [Dartmouth Outing Club] and the Ledyard canoeing club," Chilcote, who served in the Marines, said in an interview with The Dartmouth. "Some of my classmates had already signed up before they came to college, and so I called up home and said, Dad, do you think this is a good idea?' And he said, Sure,' and so I signed up."
At the panel, each veteran emphasized how little he knew upon entering the war, and each spoke about the challenges and surprises he faced in Vietnam.
Laughlin's commanding officer was killed when he arrived in Vietnam, placing Laughlin in charge of a high-cost reconnaissance mission, he said.
"In the military, it's step up or step aside," he said.
Students asked multiple questions concerning the veterans' reception upon returning to the United States after their tours.
Unlike Afghanistan or Iraq veterans are today, soldiers who served in Vietnam were not welcomed warmly by the American public, Chilcote said.
"When we came back from Vietnam, the public seemed unable to divorce the fact that we were the warriors, not the policymakers," Laughlin said.
Chilcote said that discussion about his time in Vietnam has increased in recent years. Those who knew he served in Vietnam did not ask him about it 40 years ago, which did not bother him, he said.
When American bombings expanded to Cambodia, McGrath participated in anti-war demonstrations as a University of Texas at Austin graduate student, "ironically" enduring the same tear gas and gun-pointing as he did in Vietnam, he said.
"Having fought in the war was something I just sort of repressed," he said. "It's been an interesting experience, going back over and reviewing it. I'm not sure I could have done it shortly after I got back I just wanted to forget it and go back to my life."
Laughlin spoke about the widespread use of Agent Orange, which caused his recently diagnosed Parkinson's disease.
"We had our own little weapon of mass destruction, and we didn't know it," he said.
The veterans fielded questions about leadership, attribution of blame for the war and friendships they formed with fellow soldiers.
Karoline Walter '13, a student in Miller's class, called the panel an incredible opportunity.
"I'm really impressed that they're willing to share those memories," she said.
That the event bridged faraway history and personal anecdote stood out to Caroline Liegey '13, who said the stories made the war and its effects feel immediate.
While receiving their first round of applause, McGrath quieted the audience and leaned back into the microphone. He thanked Miller, his students and Schaefer for pushing the veterans to explore an important chapter of their lives. Laughlin and Chilcote agreed.
"This is something I should have done a long time ago," Chilcote said.