By Jen Ehrhardt and Sara Smith
March 30 was Florida’s Homecoming Day for Vietnam veterans.
The Pensacola State family celebrated “Welcome Home Vietnam Veterans Day” by honoring those service members who are participating in the college’s Vietnam War Memory Project.
On that Thursday, about 15 veterans shared their experiences with students, faculty and staff, and were recognized at an appreciation luncheon held at the Jean and Paul Amos Studio. The college also hosted a “The Things They Carried” book panel in Ashmore Auditorium.
Vietnam Veterans Day commemorates the sacrifices of those veterans and their families and is part of a national effort to recognize the men and women who were denied a proper welcome upon returning home more than 40 years ago.
The Vietnam War Memory Project is a Pensacola State large project that engages faculty, staff and administrators along with community members in supporting students learning based on the Vietnam War. A large project engages student in multiple disciplines for several semesters in a row, making for an interconnected, organic learning environment.
For example, students are likely to gain extraordinary experiences in class and during special events as participants in the project. This is the behind-the-scenes account and some student outcomes derived from the day’s events.
● At 8 a.m., Pensacola State English professor Julie Ruengert hosted six veterans who were interviewed by five teams of her Composition II students in her beautifully-decorated classroom.
The students were prepared with questions in order to find information for individual papers they are writing as part of the project. This was Ruengert’s first time hosting an interview session, so she had a right to be nervous.
However, she needed not worry for long. Within minutes, her classroom was buzzing with stories from David Seiler (U.S. Marines), John Owens (U.S. Army Special Forces), Bill Clark (U.S. Army Special Forces), Jack Murphy with his wife Mary Anne Murphy (U.S. Army Special Forces), Herman Spencer (U.S. Army Special Forces), and Joe Kinego (U.S. Air Force) and follow-up questions from the students.
The excitement was palpable.
“This is so cool. Look at the students — they are totally engaged,” Ruengert said while taking in the scene.
Over the course of the session, Jessica Johnson with AmeriCorps VISTA; Tracy Peyton, academic department head, English and Communication; and Jill Hubbs, WSRE Education Content and Services director; also witnessed the high level of student engagement.
“These students are so engaged while listening to these veterans share their memories ─ what a rewarding experience to learn history firsthand from those who lived it,” Hubbs said.
The program continued after a brief intermission with a breakfast buffet sponsored by the Office of the President Ed Meadows.
● At 9:30 a.m., another one of Ruengert’s Composition II classes interviewed Vietnam veterans ─ Bill Buice (Air Force), Simon Kittler (U.S. Navy), Mike Forrester (Air Force), Mike Gilbert (Marines), John Paganelli (Navy), and Joe Kinego (Air Force).
“It was a beautiful display of community learning with community members at a community college,” said English professor Todd Neuman who brought English instructor Jamey Jones to see what was going on in this class as well.
“Wow! Man, this is what teaching is all about,” Jones added.
● Simultaneous to this second interview session, the college hosted the “The Things They Carried” book panel in Ashmore Auditorium.
The panel was about topics related to Tim O’Brien’s collection of linked short stories ─ “The Things They Carried” ─ the featured book for the project. In the work of fiction, O’Brien portrays the sacrifices and horror of war, the camaraderie of soldiers in combat, and the alienation many of the soldiers felt when they returned home.
Panelists were Pensacola State Librarian Chris Levesque, who offered a brief overview of the war; along with English instructor Sara Smith and her students, Jon Barnes and Magen Huntley, who discussed the book as a piece of literature; and (Bill) Clark who shared his real-life experiences and “the things he carried.”
The book panel allowed Smith’s students to expand their discussion beyond the classroom. The student-panelists had to modify their written analyses of the book significantly — condensing comments to conform to the brief time frame and adapting them for a large portion of the audience who may not have read the book.
Changing this content to suit the context was a valuable exercise in itself, but more importantly, the panel discussion projected their class conversations into a broader context, encompassing multiple disciplines and eliciting comments from an audience of not only Pensacola State students and faculty, but Vietnam War veterans as well.
“My students gained so much from being part of this event. The inclusion of an audience and venue beyond our classroom emphasized that what we are studying is real and relevant,” Smith said after the book panel.
“When students become personally invested in a project like this, they become active participants in a conversation that truly matters ─ one that has implications not only for understanding and honoring the past, but also for relating that past to the present day and using those reflections to inform their own perspectives. As a result, their written and verbal expressions become more authentic and thoughtful reflections of their own intellectual (and often moral) struggles. This is the point at which meaningful education begins.”
Online Public Speaking student Carly Brink who attended the session for extra credit said it was very interesting book panel, and she was she attended.
Brink’s informative speech as part of the project is based on interviews with two Vietnam veterans and their experiences during the war. She was able to relate the content of her speech to what student panelist Jon Barnes said about Tim O’Brien’s use of imagery and the life-changing experiences related to the war.
“I truly loved listening to the stories of others who are much older than me and the way life was like in comparison to now and their journey to how they got to where they are,” Brink said of her interview with (Bill) Clark.
Hubbs said the discussion was very interesting.
“The students’ questions and comments were very thoughtful and reflected how engaged they [were] – excellent panel discussion,” she noted.
More than 70 people attended the book panel. Students came from classes of (Sara) Smith, English professors Paige Anderson and Thom Botsford, communication professors Narla Zinermon and Jen Ehrhardt, and Adult Education professor Linda Lewandowski.
● At 11 a.m., Ehrhardt’s Survey of Mass Communication students interviewed the Vietnam veterans who participated in the earlier sessions as well as Carl Sievers (Army) and Jo Spencer (retired Pensacola State mathematics professor and widow of Vietnam veteran Bill Spencer).
To practice interviewing skills and production of their own mass media artifacts, each student had been assigned a major story and one or two minor stories to get information for through the interviews. By the end of this semester, the resulting stories will be published in a class zine.
Student Nicole Gunter brought her husband, U.S. Army Green Beret Rodney Gunter, to the interview session.
“It was a true honor for my husband and me to be in the presence of our ‘forefathers,’ ” she said of the experience.
The excited buzz in the classroom was so loud that Ehrhardt had to move some of the interviews to a second classroom.
“It is simply amazing to watch how the students who may normally be a bit aloof when it comes to traditional learning, absolutely take to the interviews and grow right in front of my eyes,” Ehrhardt said. “This is the phenomenon that motivates me to break down the walls of my classroom.”
The interviews from the three sessions were recorded with audio equipment borrowed from Veterans Upward Bound via Keith Wise (academic coordinator and Air Force Vietnam veteran) and The Corsair via Paula Ingram (English professor).
Also, a camcorder was borrowed from eLearning via Bill Waters (director of eLearning). Gael Frazer (associate vice president, Institutional Diversity, Community, and Media Relations), Paul Chaney (instructional technologist of Distributed Learning), Beverly Donnell (administrative assistant, Office of Continuing Education), Darene Harris (LRC Acquisitions Technician, Library), Stephanie Reed (adjunct, English/Communications), Penny Taylor (administrative assistant, Student Support Services), Lewandowski, and Todd Neuman offered leads on how to acquire the equipment.
● At 12:30 p.m., the veterans who had been interviewed were joined by retired Marines Steve Wilson and Ernie Webb in the Red Room at WSRE Studio for an appreciation luncheon.
The seed for the luncheon was planted by a student who participated in the project in fall 2016. A veteran of two tours in Afghanistan, the student become very upset when he learned how poorly Vietnam veterans were treated when they returned from the war. Ehrhardt said the student almost dropped the public speaking course, but pushed through and ended his informative speech with a wish to offer Vietnam veterans a welcome home.
WSRE General Manager Bob Culkeen and Hubbs made the wish come true.
Student Activities approved the funds for students ─ Malaysia Saterfield, Michael Arabian, Sierra Sellers with a friend, and the (Nicole and Rodney) Gunters ─ to attend the event. President Meadows approved the funds for faculty members ─ associate professor of communication Brigette Robinson, Smith, Ruengert and Ehrhardt to attend.
In a twist of the plot, the hero award goes to Carrabba’s Italian Grill for donating the food for this feast.
Culkeen along with Hubbs welcomed the veterans to the luncheon. Hubbs also introduced her WSRE original program, “They Were Our Fathers,” about fathers who died in the Vietnam War and the children they left behind.
Veteran John Paganelli was surprised at the official number of 20,000 children having lost fathers to the war ─ thinking it was a low number. In a poignant reply, veteran Mike Forrester said many of the troops lost had been too young to have fathered children.
Hubbs also shared the trailer for Ken Burns’ upcoming PBS documentary series, “The Vietnam War,” which will be released during this fall.
Following remarks, each veteran was recognized individually and presented a certificate of appreciation from Culkeen. Ehrhardt also recounted stories from the project relevant to the each veteran.
For example, she shared that (Herman) Spencer single-handedly took down the wall of the Son Tay Prison Camp.
“Herman affected my students in two very contrary ways — on one hand, they waxed poetic about his being a true American, which is great,” Ehrhardt said. “On the other hand, he caused their eloquence to deteriorate as they all call him, and I quote, ‘a total badass.’”
Commentary from the veterans indicated they enjoyed their day. Some of the honorees made it a point to brag about the students who interviewed them.
Business student Malaysia Saterfield commented on the conversations at her table.
“It was very fascinating, especially hearing them speak Vietnamese!” Reflecting on the event,” Saterfield added.
Smith said the entire college enjoyed honoring the veterans.
“I am so glad we were able to show some gratitude to the veterans who generously shared their stories and perspectives,” Smith said.
Reflecting back on Homecoming Day ─ March 30, Hubbs added it was a noteworthy day for the entire Pensacola State family.
“It was such a memorable day in the company of some unforgettable veterans with incredible stories,” she said.