BURGETTSTOWN – Students at Burgettstown Area High School had the opportunity Wednesday to learn history from the lips of someone who lived it.
As part of a series of speakers teaching students about the turbulent 1960s, classes hosted a Vietnam veteran who gave the students a firsthand account of what life was like on the ground in one of the U. S.’s most controversial conflicts.
“Most people describe Vietnam veterans as crazy, druggers, wife-beaters, homeless, always divorced,” said Lloyd “Skip” Haswell. “But we came back in the ’60s and ’70s and made a life for ourselves.”
Haswell served as a Marine sergeant in Chu Lai, Vietnam, in 1966 and 1967. When he returned from his tour of duty, he worked for 22 years as police chief and captain in Beaver Falls and then as a driver for a medic rescue team and a county coroner. He said it is important for today’s youth to carry an accurate picture of the men and women who returned from Vietnam.
“Yes there are some Vietnam vets who take drugs or are alcoholics,” Haswell said. “Some have (post-traumatic stress disorder) – but that’s not crazy. The majority of people became good, productive citizens.”
Haswell was invited to speak in front of students enrolled in American History classes. As president of the Beaver County Chapter 862 of the Vietnam Veterans of America, speaking in front of crowds about the war is something he is used to.
But many Vietnam veterans are not so open about their experiences. Heather Dengel, the history teacher who invited Haswell into her classroom, said she got the idea as a result of her father’s reluctance to tell his family about the war.
“I wish more would be able to tell their stories but, of course I understand the sensitivity of why they can’t,” Dengel said. “My own father wouldn’t talk about it and I also had an uncle who was there at the same time and he would never talk about it. For me, it has led to fixation in Asia and what happened there.”
Haswell brought in a load of Vietnam memorabilia that he shared with the classroom. The items included both personal mementos from his service and objects that were recovered from the site where an American soldier was buried by a Viet Cong combatant during the war.
Part of his personal collection included C-rations, the ready-to-eat meals carried by U.S. troops during the war.
“Think about the worst meal you’ve ever had in your life,” Haswell said. “Then multiply it by 100. That’s what a C-ration tasted like.”
Haswell offered a gritty, realistic view of life in Vietnam to the students, many of which had friends or relatives who had or were serving in Afghanistan.
“There were two different living conditions in Vietnam,” Haswell said, “and both of them were terrible. You were out in the bush, out in the jungle, or you were on base.” Life on the base consisted of intermittent periods of boredom and fear. Whenever on guard duty, Haswell said he and a partner would take turns holding a grenade with the pin pulled – a surefire way to ensure they didn’t sleep on the job.
“Plus, if the enemy came, you had a grenade ready,” Haswell said.
Haswell said that living in the bush consisted of sleeping in tents on a cot without a sheet, eating C-rations and being on constant lookout for an ever-present enemy.
“Collecting combat pay and being in a war zone, it never gets any easier,” Haswell said. “You never get used to it.”
Despite his service, Haswell said he bristled at being called a hero.
“I did my job,” Haswell said, “but I’m not a hero. The heroes are down on the wall.”
The guest lecture was part of a series of speakers who gave presentations on what life was like in the1960s. Dengel said her students were better for the experience.
“I think the kids were very receptive,” Dengel said. “It was a really great experience. I can teach them from a textbook or I can show them a documentary, but it’s not the same as hearing about it from a veteran.”