Lapeer East students learn about Vietnam from pair of local vets

Jim Smith, a veteran of the United States Navy, talked about his experience in Vietnam at Lapeer East High School on Friday morning.
Jim Smith, a veteran of the United States Navy, talked about his experience in Vietnam at Lapeer East High School on Friday morning.
John Gonzales, dean at Lapeer East, speaks about his experience as a soldier in Vietnam.
John Gonzales, dean at Lapeer East, speaks about his experience as a soldier in Vietnam.

Friday morning, Lapeer East High School students from Aaron Romoslawski’s Social Studies class learned about the Vietnam War from two men who experienced it firsthand. John Gonzales, dean at Lapeer East, and former LCS Communications Director James Smith, spoke to students about their experiences as young people in the theater of war.

Gonzales, ironically, landed in Vietnam on this day, April 19, in 1968. He spent a year there as a member of the United States Army. Smith, much to his surprise, would have actually been in the arena of war for a short period of time with Gonzalez, albeit separated by many miles of sea — Smith was a navigator in the United States Navy.

Probably the most compelling story told by either man was one of mistaken identity, something that is not uncommon in the fog of war. Another man with the same name (first, middle initial and last) as  our Mr. Gonzales, who was from Port Huron, was killed in battle in Vietnam during this time.

“They contacted my parents and told them I had been killed,” Gonzales said. For a period of time before he was able to reach them directly, they believed their son was dead.

Both Gonzales and Smith expressed some regrets over how the Vietnam War was waged, noting that some of the mistakes that were made there more than 40 years ago are being made today in Afghanistan.

“If you’re not serious about winning, don’t go to war,” Smith said.

Gonzales agreed.

“If we had Generals like we had in World War II, like Patton, like MacArthur, we’d have walked right across (the country) and would have had enough people to take care of the problem,” said Gonzales, who spent some time in the war navigating underground tunnel complexes created by the Viet Cong. “But, they didn’t allow us to do that.”

Students had 10 minutes at the end of the presentation to ask questions. Many of their questions had to do with the everyday life of a soldier, but they were also interested in mindsets of such young people dropped into the middle of a war-torn country 9,000 miles away from home.

Gonzales told the students that he didn’t talk about the war much when he returned home. He said all that changed when he spoke to some World War II veterans who urged him to talk about his experiences, for fear they would well up in him and cause him hardship.

Finally, Mr. Smith told a story about a former classmate of his who died in combat in Vietnam (while he himself was there in 1968). He said he often thinks about how fortunate he is to have been able to experience so much in his life that his friend never could.

“The decisions that you make today,” he told the class, “will have an affect on the rest of  your life.”

Thank you to John Gonzales and Jim Smith for taking the time to impart to our students some of your wisdom.

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