Vietnam War Veteran's Memories Stun Greater Latrobe History Class

By Napsha, Joe | Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, February 8, 2012 | Go to article overview

Vietnam War Veteran's Memories Stun Greater Latrobe History Class


Napsha, Joe, Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review


Forty-four years removed from the battlefields of Vietnam, Cliff Shrum of Latrobe still recalls his first night in that Southeast Asian nation, hearing mortar rounds hit Cam Ranh Air Base, making him realize "this isn't Kansas anymore, Toto."

The 18-year-old kid from Latrobe was thrust into the midst of a raging war in January 1968. Little did he know that weeks after landing in Vietnam, the North Vietnamese communists would start the Tet Offensive. The invasion by some 70,000 North Vietnamese and Viet Cong soldiers targeted 100 cities in South Vietnam in an attempt to overthrow its government.

Shrum brought history to life last week in a presentation to about 22 Greater Latrobe High School students in Brad Wetzel's "Vietnam: Tour of Duty" history class. He described the life of a soldier in the Vietnam War, where there were no clear battle lines and the person who shined your boots or cleaned your clothes during the day was the enemy shooting at you with an AK-47 rifle at night.

"Vietnam was an unpopular war, but it also was a war that brought a lot of people together," said Shrum, the homeland security and community preparedness coordinator at Westmoreland County Community College, near Youngwood.

Studying the Vietnam War can give students an appreciation of the impact of history, said Wetzel, a history teacher who has been teaching the class on the subject for eight years.

"If America refuses to learn its history, we will be unable to lead the free world. These students have opted not to forget about Vietnam and that era but rather examine it," Wetzel said.

The class gives students the opportunity to "examine how our society was in crisis: from the White House to the major cities to the college campuses," he said.

It's important for high school students like those in Wetzel's class to learn about the Vietnam War, said Richard Herbert of Greensburg, a former president of the Vietnam Veterans of Westmoreland County.

"There isn't really much in (school) history books about the Vietnam War. Sometimes it's just one page," said Herbert, an Army mechanic and convoy driver in Vietnam in 1968.

Students who have the opportunity to hear from Vietnam War veterans can better understand "what it was like to be a soldier" in that war, said Paul N. Yeckel of Jeannette, an Army infantryman who was stationed in Chu Lai from 1966 to 1967, a former leader of the speakers bureau of the Vietnam Veterans of Westmoreland County.

"I hope the students get an appreciation for the sacrifice made by so many. I hope that by listening to men who served in Vietnam, they can begin to gather insights into a war that has rarely been portrayed correctly by the media or Hollywood," Wetzel said.

One of those students, junior Ben Biss, who is considering a career as a history teacher, said Shrum gave them an understanding of "what the average soldier went through."

'People are getting killed'

When he was not much older than the students sitting in the safety of their high school class and armed with a Latrobe high school diploma, Shrum enlisted in the Army, not wanting to wait for the draft to take him. Like so many others of his generation, he was following in the footsteps of his father and uncles, who served their country during World War II by enlisting in the Army, not waiting for the draft.

"It seemed like the right thing to do," said Shrum, the son of a steelworker.

While the ramifications of the war were being felt in the White House, cities and colleges, Shrum was seeing the war played out in the A Shau Valley. Located about 30 miles from the ancient capital city of Hue in northern South Biet, it was the site of a fierce battle in northern South Vietnam in April 1968. Hue was under fierce attack during the Tet offensive, and the region was a route of North Vietnamese infiltration into South Vietnam. …

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