Oregon City High School students pose burning questions to veterans
Oregon City High School switched to a new format this year to honor Veterans Day.
Rather than the schoolwide assembly of previous years, dozens of veterans went individually or in small groups to select classrooms to tell their stories and answer questions on Nov. 9. The veterans also were honored guests at an "American as Apple Pie" concert that evening. On Nov. 11, OCHS is holding a public Veterans Day bazaar.
OCHS students created a "hallway of honor" lined with about 2,000 hand shapes cut out of paper and filled out with personal statements thanking veterans for their service. Before heading to the classrooms last Thursday, the veterans were treated to breakfast and performances by the OCHS choir.
OCHS senior Kelli Lopez, who is a member of the choir, said the serenade was the least students could do to thank all the veterans for everything they've done for the country.
"We're incredibly honored to be able to sing these songs for you today," she told the vets.
Vietnam War veteran Doug MacEllven said that he had never experienced such a show of gratitude.
"When we came back from overseas we didn't have people singing and thanking us for our service," MacEllven said.
Many students also appreciated getting to hear personal veterans' stories, including OCHS junior Nicole Ceperich. OCHS Principal Tom Lovell said that the new format had a major advantage in that the students have to pay attention to the veterans' stories.
"The assembly was an amazing experience," Lovell said. "But if kids aren't engaged and it's not personal, there's not a lot of learning that's going on."
Vietnam veteran Terry Low, president of the Columbia-Willamette chapter of the 1st Cavalry Division, talked about how many families personally experienced harassment from war protesters who figured out how to contact the families of soldiers.
A woman claiming she was from the Red Cross told Low's mother that Low was missing in action. Low's mother had to wait by the phone for three days for more information until she called the Red Cross herself. In June 1970, Low returned from the battlefield in Cambodia and was told to assure his family he was OK.
OCHS students asked tough questions, including what the veterans thought about National Football League players taking a knee during the national anthem, a question the veterans declined to answer during Marin Black's 10th-grade class. Some of the veterans, however, were willing to answer a generally taboo question about how they feel about killing during wartime.
Jim Jordan, who served in the 1st Cavalry Division during the Vietnam War, said "when you kill someone [from the opposing army who wants to kill you], you're very thankful initially." He said when he returned home later, he remembered the pictures he found in the wallets of dead enemy soldiers. "What about the families of the people I killed?" he told students he asked himself.
Although he has never knowingly killed anyone face-to-face, Low said he often has heard from veterans that "killing someone is easy but living with it is hard."
All of the four veterans speaking to the class said they suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, a condition they think all veterans struggle with.
"I feel that my friends and my brothers were killed or wounded in vain," Low said. "War is a terrible thing."
Scarlett Hartt worked as a registered nurse at the Veterans Administration hospital in New York while her husband, Gary, served in Vietnam. She said the underfunded hospital was equipped to deal with the medical issues of returning veterans but not psychological issues caused by the war. Meanwhile, she told students about how her husband's full contingent of 180 men lost all but eight of its members during a "bad firefight" on the Cambodian border.
'What makes us Americans'
After the class, Hartt said she and her husband both would have been willing to comment to the local newspaper or to individual students about the NFL protests, but she didn't want to announce her views in front of the group of veterans.
Kneeling during the national anthem is OK, according to Hartt, but harassing veterans and their families would be crossing a line.
"Peaceful protests — no matter what form they take — I'm for it," Hartt said. "What makes us Americans is that we can dissent."
Veterans generally appreciated the personal interaction with students in classrooms but some asked OCHS administrators to bring back the assembly, echoing some of the concerns of some parents on social media.
"We really miss the veterans assembly that you guys used to do," Low told OCHS administrators.
Lovell said he would like to bring back the assembly next year, along with the personal classroom visits from veterans.
Black said her 10th-graders benefited from the visit by veterans, including when Jordan questioned the veracity of "The Things They Carried," a semi-autobiographical book by veteran Tom O'Brien in Black's curriculum on the Vietnam War. Black thanked Jordan for his perspective but was asked to reflect on the exchange after the veterans left the classroom.
"It's still exposure to history, and there were many different perspectives on the Vietnam War," Black said. "I want my students thinking for themselves and learning based on experience. The veterans' visit was really powerful and awesome for teenagers to see."