By Todd Martin
Special to the Hood Herald
A decorated Vietnam War veteran showed a group of Fort Hood students artifacts from the indigenous people who battled alongside Americans during that conflict.
Retired Lt. Col. Lee Bailey Wilson spoke to fifth-graders at Clear Creek Elementary School Monday during the school's fifth annual Take a Veteran to School Day.
Wilson, a 1954 Killeen High School graduate and Army Special Forces officer in the 5th Special Forces Group, joined retired Col. Tal Anderson in describing aspects of the Vietnam War to students.
Kimberly Gilmore, historian from The History Channel, was at the Fort Hood elementary school for the event, kicking off a nationwide emphasis on Vietnam era veterans.
The cable station will air Vietnam in HD Nov. 8 to 10.
"We kick it off here because of the population here," said Gilmore, explaining that the history of local veterans provides context for children whose parents serve in today's military.
"He was great," she said of Wilson, "because he brought in these artifacts. Students can understand the history and learn from those who lived it."
Wilson showed fifth-graders a large map of Vietnam, pointing out America's movement in the Southeast Asian country.
Much of his presentation centered on the Montagnard people, an aboriginal people born in Vietnam but not officially claimed by any established group, he explained.
American Special Forces in Vietnam befriended the small tribal people, eventually training them to fight alongside Americans.
Wilson said he and his comrades issued the people the first footwear they ever saw and taught them how to sleep in a bunk.
"They came in wearing a loin cloth and carrying a crossbow," Wilson said, describing events that occurred in 1966.
They had no written language and the Americans used hand signals to communicate with them.
The remote people won the hearts of the Americans as they adapted to any weapon they gave them and fought with fierce commitment and loyalty.
A captain at the time, Wilson said he was surprised when orders came down to train the Montagnard for airborne operations. About 1,200 of the tribal people qualified to parachute into combat.
"They would follow an American into a cannon barrel," Wilson said, explaining the indigenous people's loyalty to the forces battling the Communist North Vietnamese.
Wilson showed students baskets and a fishnet the people wove from bamboo strips. He also showed authentic wooden crossbows they used in hunting.
Poorly treated by both North and South Vietnamese, Wilson said the Montagnard felt cared for by the Americans and voted to support them during the war.
Tragically, he said, shortly after America pulled out of Vietnam, the South Vietnamese slaughtered the aboriginal population. Only about 1,500 of the 30,000 escaped the country.
Donna Bownds, campus technologist at Clear Creek, said the day focused on veterans is about embracing the community and learning from local veterans.
Anderson, a captain in 1968 who was chief of personnel management for the 9th Infantry Division, told fourth-graders their parents received the hero treatment they deserved.
He told them during the Vietnam era, soldiers returned to a country that at times didn't recognize their service as honorable.
Exposure to specific examples of military service helps students create a building block to build on, Gilmore said.
Any school can sign up to take part in Take a Vet to School Day and receive resources tied to The History Channel initiative. The web site is: http://classroom.history.com/america-dvd/event/take-vet-form.