By Monique De Santis
I first met David when his niece and goddaughter was a student in my 8th grade Social Studies class. We were embarking on an in-depth, six-week unit on the Vietnam War. Wanting to include community resources, I asked my students to invite any family member who had been touched by the Vietnam War to come in as a guest speaker.
David's niece asked her Uncle David and he agreed to come speak.
All the other veteran guest speakers came on the same day, presenting as a panel. David was unable to come on that date, so he came to speak solo.
David came prepared. He had enlarged a map of Vietnam and he brought photos of himself "in-country." David's presence commanded attention as he stood before my class of 25 students. He wore no military uniform, no fatigues, pins, ribbons, medals, not even a veteran's cap - as many of the other veterans had. David wore simple khakis and a polo shirt. He stood before the students, serious, silent for a moment, until, finally, he began:
"I bet you're all wondering: 'What does this old, fat guy have to tell us about Vietnam?'"
BAM! Just like that he had the students laughing.
His first photo was of himself at 19 years of age in his "Dress Blues" uniform upon graduation from the U.S. Marine Corps training. "I was close to your age when I went into the Marines." To better illustrate his point, David asked for volunteers and called two students to the front of the class, Tony, a slender, slight boy sporting a buzz cut similar to a military recruit, and Dina, a stylishly dressed blonde a little taller than Tony.
With Tony and Dina now standing in front of the class, a little proud for being selected and self-composed beyond their years, rising to this important occasion, David repeated again: "Your classmates Tony and Dina look very much like me and my young bride in 1966 when I left for war."
Masterful! In one, bold, visual tableau, David had bridged the age gap between a middle-aged veteran and 14-year-old students.
David's first wife accompanied him to my class. They'd married before he went into the military. She was pregnant when he left for Vietnam and had their baby daughter while he was away fighting. I had invited her to speak as well, but she chose to be a quiet presence in support of David. David let the two students return to their seats.
David continued: "Now, I know you're all dying to ask the same question: 'Did I kill anyone when I was in the war?'" A collective gasp by myself and all my students. What? How could he start with this? I was appalled, surprised, and a bit scared. Where was he going with this? Was it going to be appropriate for young 14-year-old kids?
David went on: "I know that your teacher talked to you about being 'sensitive' to the feelings of the veterans and to never ask that question." The students looked at me, standing at the side of the classroom, nodding their heads in agreement.
Brilliant! He had diffused tension about the most taboo question.
Yet, David never did answer this question over the next 45 minutes of the class. David spoke about his friend, Lou, an orphaned Vietnamese boy of 11. How Lou attached himself to David, sharing fruit, candy, and playing ball whenever David was on base. David battled monkeys who threw their poop down from the trees in protest of the marine's tent below. He even adopted a monkey, who had to wear diapers and who saved David's life by alerting him to a night raid by the enemy onto the U.S. base.
David asked me read aloud his citation for Bronze Star with Combat V (Valor) medal. He earned this medal when his base was overrun one night by Vietnamese soldiers. David was in the hospital with severe wounds to his legs, but when the raid began, David left his hospital bed to help. Coming upon a wounded Marine, David crossed through the firefight zone as best as his legs allowed to get a medic to come care for the wounded man.
In the last minutes of the class, David invited students to come up to the front table to see his memorabilia including his Bronze Star and Purple Heart medals, photos, and maps. Students eagerly surrounded David to ask more questions and shake his hand.
In a little reception in our school library, where David met other teachers and the principal and talked informally after the classroom presentation, David confessed to me, privately, that when he came home from the war, he burned everything and never spoke about it again, to anyone. He confessed that this speaking engagement was his first after a 30-year silence about the war.
In thank-you letters written the following day, students expressed heartfelt gratitude for David's courage not only in the war, but in sharing his experience with them. It was evident that David had a deep impact on my students. David wrote me a thank-you letter as well, for inviting him to speak and for my courage to teaching about a controversial, and often avoided, topic of the War. I was honored.
David later shared with me a sketch he drew of how he'd experienced his visit to my classroom. The sketch depicted a classroom full of students, me standing to the side, and David at the front podium. At the back of the class were five soldiers with blank eyes. David explained that these were his lost buddies, his friends, that never made it home. He told me that when he looked out over my students' heads, he saw, literally saw, these specters of his friends. While their apparition scared him, it was their presence that compelled him to speak, on their behalf, because they couldn't.
I asked David if he'd ever written down any of his stories. They were so different and original from other veterans' accounts that I'd read during my research to prepare this teaching unit. Some time after his first engagement to speak to my students, David did start writing a book of his stories, told in third person, about a boy named "Danny." Writing in first person must have felt too close to home.
Towards the end of our six-week study, it was time for my students to share their final projects. David and his wife returned to my classroom to help mount the projects in a display of student work. This time my guests came armed with an enormous donation of supplies: presentation boards, markers, sticky pads, tape, and stencils. For a full of day, five classes in a row, David orchestrated the creation of our own Vietnam Memorial Wall, a day I called "creativity bordering on chaos." David wrangled every student to a task, exerting his leadership skills, while his wife carefully organized the projects by category: soldier's letters home, wives' scrapbooks, poetry by nurses, anti-war posters and songs, plays, art and dioramas, from both U.S. and Vietnamese perspectives, all created by my students.
Parents, community, and media were later invited to view our Vietnam Memorial Wall and celebrate our students' accomplishments.
Over the next six years, David came to speak several more times. In the sixth year, I received a manila envelope from David with a draft chapter from his book-in-progress with an invitation for me to read it and make suggestions or comments. David also asked a few other members of our faculty whom he'd met at our school. I was honored that he'd shared his writing with me, delighted that he'd taken to writing some of his stories. When I read his chapter, I felt excited and intrigued while simultaneously wondering how to honestly comment on what I felt was a glorification of the war effort, a view I personally did not share. While in the classroom, it was my job to present all viewpoints and let my students decide for themselves. But in commenting privately on David's chapter, I felt distressed.
How could show my respect while also giving an honest opinion? I was acutely aware of being a civilian, too young to have even been touched by or involved in the war in any capacity - so who was I to comment?
Before writing any comments, I asked David outright whether he wanted my feedback even if I disagreed with his views. David made it clear that he greatly respected me and my views. He went on to say that if it hadn't been for the anti-war movement, the war would have gone on much longer with many more lives lost. An interesting and surprising view for a veteran!
During my Vietnam unit, I had one lesson which re-enacted a "coffeehouse singalong" of protest songs. I had encountered strong opposition from some colleagues and parents who felt I was betraying the country and dishonoring those who served and those who had fallen. At that time, David had expressed his support for presenting the anti-war viewpoint. A veteran's support quelled some of the discontent among my colleagues and my students got to experience the anti-war viewpoint for a day.
That first year, when David returned to my classroom to put together the display of student work, I warned him that our Memorial Wall reflected not only the American experience of the war, but also the Vietnamese perspectives, both North and South. I didn't want to put him in an awkward position working with these "multiple perspectives." David surprised me then too, sharing some stories of how he honored his enemy too.
When David and I corresponded and spoke by phone about his draft chapter and my comments, I came to appreciate how complex were the feelings of this veteran. In his first chapter, he reflected the pride and determination of a young marine first in-country. In later chapters, David showed how he'd evolved. After seeing the reality of war carnage, he ultimately become disillusioned with the U.S. war effort while continuing his duty as a soldier and defending the lives of his fellow Marines even while seriously wounded. When he could no longer walk, they shipped him home to a military hospital, where they told him he'd never walk again.
During our work on the book draft, a surprising connection emerged between us that went beyond professional collaboration. David had shared that his marriage had ended. Now he admitted to me: "I have feelings for you." A shocking revelation, all the more so because I felt the same, quite unexpectedly for both us. Like exceedingly polite and shy adults, we had no idea how to have a courtship.
My first husband had died suddenly and unexpectedly years before. David had been married to his first wife for three decades. Dating was in neither of our vocabularies. Yet we did "date" in a few memorable, if awkward, get-togethers. We had lunch, we saw a documentary about vets returning to Vietnam, we went apple picking, and he met my Golden Retriever dog, Latte. We even went together to meet his VA PTSD doctor and his vets group, where he introduced me to "the guys." David credited this doctor, the entire VA team, and the other vets, for helping him recognize that his nightmares, daymares, and a myriad of other frightening symptoms were PTSD, something he'd never heard of, thinking that he must be "going crazy." David's symptoms had gotten so severe, including blackouts while driving, so scary and unexplained, that David had left his wife and daughter, his family, his thriving career as an advertising executive with his own prosperous company, his home, and "disappeared." He ended up, essentially homeless, in the Southwest, working odd jobs to survive. He'd worked as a landscaper, hotel bell boy, and even as a bouncer at an "exotic dance club." He later recognized that this latter job, where he faced off with dangerous, inebriated, and violent customers every night, was like a suicide mission.
His wife tracked down his whereabouts, even though he'd kept them secret. Eventually, months later, she found him and went to convince him to come home. She had also learned about PTSD through a brochure she shared with him, and said he could get help. She would help him get there. This was the VA program for veterans with PTSD, people whom David credited for saving his life. With the help of his doctor and "the guys," David learned that he deserved to be loved, deserved to be happy, and not just consumed by survivor's guilt and anguish for the combat atrocities of which he had been a part.
Between the time between when we first met in my classroom and when David asked for feedback on his book, David's first marriage came to an end. So six years after we first met, David and I pursued a shy courtship.
I proposed to David on a white sand beach on the Gulf Coast of Florida. David also proposed to me, back home in Boston, on bent knee, in a cramped 2-by-3-foot jewelry store, where my ring was being custom made, with my dog, Latte, in tow as witness! We married on those sandy beaches in Florida and moved there to start our new life together, where I found a new teaching position. David continued to work on his Vietnam book, paintings, and sketch illustrations of scenes from his war experience.