Before America’s combat history in Vietnam slips into the exclusive realm of archive and cinema, it’s the aging veterans of that conflict who can best pass along its memories and lessons.
Retired Army Sgt. Maj. Robert McCullough, 67, of Harker Heights, spoke to U.S. history classes at Shoemaker High School of his three tours of duty in Vietnam with an engineering battalion.
“His experience is invaluable to students,” said Shoemaker teacher Katherine Bennett. “I want them to understand history is about real people, not words on a page.”
Bennett’s students are studying the Vietnam War era and watching the movie “We Were Soldiers” based on the book by retired Lt. Gen. Hal Moore, also a veteran of the Vietnam era.
The vast majority of the soldiers who spent periods of time in the late 1960s and early 1970s didn’t see anything close to what Moore’s unit experienced in the Battle of la Drang, popularized by the book and movie.
Maybe 10 percent of the thousands of U.S. soldiers deployed in and around Vietnam actually engaged with local residents and the insurgent Viet Cong, McCullough said.
In 1965, when the U.S. was on the verge of escalating from an advisory role to combat, McCullough was a high school senior.
He said he had never heard of the southeast Asian country.
But, at age 18, he enlisted and in 1966 took a 28-day trip by Navy ship to the faraway land.
At that time, American public consciousness had not rested yet on Vietnam, a country familiar with war from the days of World War II and French occupation.
McCullough was a young sergeant laboring away at building airstrips, bunkers and tunnels for the 1st Cavalry Division.
During two more tours, the soldier continued to work in engineering capacities for different units.
A turning point, he said, was the Tet Offensive of January 1968 when North Vietnam broke truce, initiating a two-week fight that likely led to 100,000 Vietnamese deaths.
That period was deadly for the Viet Cong, but also for American support for the war. Media coverage, including TV broadcasts from the battlefield, brought home the reality of war like never before, the veteran said.
By his second tour in 1969-1970, McCullough said the country’s heart was not in it and by his third tour he said President Richard Nixon was laboring to remove the nation from the war.
Carefully noting that he was sharing his own opinions and not those of the government, McCullough told students the North Vietnamese were dedicated to their political goals, while the South Vietnamese lost commitment.
He also said while 58,200 soldiers died between 1950 and 1973 in the southeast Asian combat, more than 800,000 Vietnamese civilians lost their lives, the most devastating part of the war.
Soldiers on the battlefield were not by nature political, tending to do their jobs to stay alive and support their comrades rather than worry about protesters and strategy.
America was in Vietnam, he said, in an effort to contain the spread of communism and to give South Vietnam a shot at democracy.
As a combat noncommissioned officer, he said he never lost a soldier, crediting his training, God and luck and claiming that made his time successful.
Answering student questions, he said that yes, he was scared at times. He also told students if they ever join the military to train hard because that training can save you in battle.
Kathryn Staton-Willcox, a Texas A&M University-Central Texas education student set to graduate in May is a student teacher in Bennett’s class and the stepdaughter of McCullough.
“I wanted to personalize the war for them,” she said of her decision to invite her stepfather to speak.
“Whenever you can personalize history, students are more likely to connect and learn.”
“It’s cool to see someone who was actually there,” said Shoemaker junior Jake Davis. “Most veterans don’t want to talk about it, but we got an insider scoop.”