The grainy footage played in the multipurpose room at Da Vinci Charter Academy on Friday showed tiny bodies on stretchers being quickly unloaded from a helicopter and rushed away by U.S. military medics.
Then, Vietnam War veteran Gilbert Gonzalez appeared on screen to explain the scene he had filmed more than 40 years before.
A battle had erupted between U.S. forces and the Viet Cong, Gonzalez said. Viet Cong soldiers had opened fire on the Americans from the cover of a building, then ran off. American gunships then opened fire on the building itself, and only afterward did the pilots realize the building was an orphanage, now filled with dead and wounded children.
So the pilots landed in hostile territory, dumped their cargo and began filling the gunships with the wounded children, before flying them to safety and medical care.
It was a snippet of wartime history that defined for Da Vinci student Aaron Levin-Fay not just the human cost of war, but also the bravery of the soldiers who risked their lives to save those children.
“In our daily lives,” Levin-Fay said, “we mostly ask what we can do to benefit ourselves. I can only speculate what went through their minds. (But) these soldiers performed an incredible act of selflessness and valor.”
If there is anything that the students of Da Vinci have learned over the past three years participating in the Library of Congress’ Veterans History Project — and they say there is much — it is that the lessons of war are more nuanced than they imagined going into the project.
And that was the point when teacher Tyler Millsap added the Veterans History Project to the school’s annual “America at War” project. In addition to the months of collaborative group work studying America’s war history, Da Vinci juniors for the past three years have videotaped interviews with area veterans about their wartime experiences. They’ve then sent those interviews to the Library of Congress, which has collected some 100,000 oral histories from American veterans since 2000.
Da Vinci students have contributed 78 oral histories since 2010, and in doing so have developed a new understanding about war that they didn’t have before, Millsap has said.
This year they interviewed 23 veterans in all, a number of whom, like Gonzalez, were in the multipurpose room on Friday to be honored by the students for their participation in the project.
Also among them was 90-year-old World War II veteran Warren Nichols, who was told by student Lauren Hartz: “You are the bravest man I’ve ever known.”
Nichols not only fought in the second World War, he also left behind a pregnant wife and family to fight in Korea, missing the birth of his daughter.
“I cannot even fathom how difficult that was for him,” said Da Vinci student Pete Young.
Nichols also shared with the students what he gained from his wartime experiences, as horrifying as they were at times.
“I had no idea how strong I was,” he told them in the videotaped interview. “I got tested over there and I found out who I am. … A lot of people grow up never running into a test, so consequently, they never know how strong they are.”
Gonzalez brought a different perspective from his Vietnam War days.
He told students he’d come to the conclusion not long after arriving in Vietnam that he was on the wrong side.
“You know,” he said, “these people are kind of fighting for their freedom.”
And from that point on, he said, he focused more on simply surviving.
Da Vinci student John Conant didn’t expect to hear that from Gonzalez going into the interview.
Conant said he went into the interview believing the Vietnam War to be wrong, but said he never would have said so to a Vietnam vet. Turned out he didn’t have to, and he expressed surprise at that.
But the students also disagreed with Gonzalez about something.
In the act of killing, Gonzalez told them, he had lost his humanity, and it never returned.
“Even today I don’t feel sorry for people,” he said in the interview. “You can’t. You cannot kill somebody, you cannot pull the trigger, if you have any humanity.”
Student Emma Meads disagreed.
“I don’t believe someone can lose his humanity,” she said. “I think war reveals our humanity.”
Iraq war veteran Amanda Gedaut served as an exceptional role model to the three Da Vinci students — all female — who interviewed her.
She spoke openly of the discrimination she has faced in the Air Force, the many times she was told, “You don’t belong on this airplane.”
Her response: “What, are you from the 1940s?”
It hardened her in a way. Even now, she said, as her husband, his parents and her own parents urge her to get out of the military and start a family, it keeps her there.
“There’s a piece of me that’s just angry,” she said.
When she does leave, “I need to do it for the right reasons,” she said.
Gedaut was the only woman among the 23 veterans Da Vinci students interviewed this year, and student Yasmin Kouchesfahni said she looked forward to returning to Da Vinci for a future America at War presentation “when half of the veterans in the project are women.”
Among those listening to the student presentations and watching snippets of interviews was Rep. John Garamendi, D-Walnut Grove, who was asked to be the afternoon’s keynote speaker, but had the difficult task of following the student presentations.
“Where do you start after all that?” he said. “What these extraordinary students have done … how do you add to these stories and film clips?”
To the veterans present, Garamendi said, “I really thank you for doing something so extremely important for the next generation.”
And he thanked the Da Vinci teachers who made it possible — Millsap and Hayleigh Munoz — “for this extremely important experience … that too few Americans have had … reaching back to past generations and taking from them their experiences, emotions, triumphs.”
And for preserving them for all time.
To learn more about the Veterans History Project or to view the thousands of oral histories recorded there, visit http://www.loc.gov/vets.
— Reach Anne Ternus-Bellamy at firstname.lastname@example.org or 530-747-8051. Follow her on Twitter at @ATernusBellamy