Vietnam veterans offer personal stories to West Caldwell students

Feb. 21, 2014 @ 08:08 AM

Angelo Carmen, Bob Matthews and Bill Dixon stood in front of West Caldwell High School students Wednesday and gave them a glimpse into something they may not have learned much about before, the Vietnam War.

Carmen, Matthews and Dixon are all Vietnam veterans and members of North Carolina Vietnam Veterans Inc., and they came to West to teach them about the war. Matthews said most school history classes largely skip.

But the presentation to West Caldwell students wasn’t a lecture on the history of the war, but a personal question-and-answer session where the three veterans discussed their personal experiences only.

Questions from students ranged from experiences with Agent Orange -- a defoliant widely used in Vietnam that has been linked to long-term health problems in veterans -- to bullet wounds.

The students asked whether the veterans ever thought about why they were in the war and whether it was the right thing.

For Matthews, it wasn’t until he returned home that he reflected on that. When he was in Vietnam, survival was day-to-day, and his thoughts remained with his wife and on getting back home, but he said he would do it again.

Dixon said his mindset was simple: When he enlisted, he signed a ”blank check” with Uncle Sam, signing himself over. “You did what you were told or you didn’t come back,” he said.

The last question the students asked: “What was life like when you got home?”

Everyone adjusted in their own way, Matthews said. Some veterans received rough welcomes home, and many came home to nice receptions, he said, but when soldiers came home, they tried to reclaim the year they had lost in Vietnam.

Dixon said when he came home, he was encouraged not to wear his uniform because protesters were waiting in airports to harass returning veterans, calling them “baby killers” and throwing bags of human waste at them.

After Carmen came home, his marriage fell apart, and he lost his house and went on a motorcycle journey across the U.S., working for two days and traveling for two days.

When asked if the veterans ever get flashbacks, Matthews said that a lot of young people get their image of the typical Vietnam veteran from movies, where the flashback impression is reinforced. But he told the story of meeting a veteran for the first time, and asking when he was in Vietnam. The answer: last night.

“We all have flashbacks,” Matthews said. “But they’re not all bad.”

Carmen agreed. “It never goes away,” he said, likening it to a switch in the brain that gets turned on and can’t be turned off. “It’ll go away when they bury me.”