The Boys of ’67: Charlie Company’s War in Vietnam is a story of young men in combat and what war does to the human soul. As a book based largely on oral histories, there are stories that I gathered during the writing process that touched me deeply – stories of loss, perseverance, death, and life. Of all of the stories, though, one stands out; the very first – the story of how the book was born.
I always try to integrate veteran speakers into my many classes on military history. They were there on Omaha Beach, in the Pusan Perimeter, at Khe Sanh, and in Fallujah. They have the personal experiences that make a class come to life.
In 1996, I tried something different by taking my class to the veterans. We visited the VA Medical Center in Gulfport, Mississippi to speak with veterans there who were part of a Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) support group. It was a true journey of discovery in every way. We didn’t know anything about PTSD beyond the bastardized Hollywood depictions of the disorder. The veterans really didn’t know or fully trust us. But the meeting went wonderfully well, and the veterans shared their most traumatic memories with a group of intelligent young people who valued their experiences.
One of those veterans was so eloquent, so special. His stories were mesmerizing; his word pictures were pure, visceral art. This veteran, John Young, who had been a squad leader in Charlie Company of the 4th of the 47th Infantry, approached me after the meeting and asked if he could sit in on my next Vietnam War class. To this very day, I don’t know why I did it, but somehow I knew that I had to take the risk. I told him that he couldn’t sit in on the class, but he could help me teach it.
No doubt surprised by the offer made by a college professor whom he had only known for a single hour, Young agreed.
Since it was the end of the semester, it was almost an entire year before the Vietnam War class started again. On the first day of class, just like he had promised, John Young was there ready to play whatever role I assigned him. He was ready to teach a new generation of young people about his own generation’s war.
We did not go into that first class meeting unprepared. The Vietnam War is not just a slice of John Young – it is what defines him. He was, and is, 100% disabled with PTSD. Aware that there was a risk, both John and I had independent discussions with his PTSD counselor at the VA, and everything seemed ready to move ahead smoothly when class was ready to start.
In those days I began my class by screening the documentary Dear America: Letters Home from Vietnam. As it turned out John had already seen the film, which has several vivid combat scenes, and assured me that watching it in class would not pose any problems.
During the second week of January 1997, the first day of class finally came. John and I met for the second time and chatted about how the semester might unfold before heading into the class to introduce him to a fresh batch of students. Next, I dimmed the lights, began the film, and took my seat in a wooden desk a few rows away from John. As the film progressed and the combat scenes became increasingly more violent, I noticed that John was gripping his desk so tightly that his knuckles were turning white.
In a burst of sudden motion John Young leapt up, kicking his desk several feet away. He then began screaming – a desperate, unintelligible cacophony of sound – and he motioned wildly with his hands. As the film continued in the background, and the class sat transfixed, the heart-rending screaming continued. Then there was one sudden outburst crystal in its clarity, “Get down! Get down!” John then turned, as if the class was his squad, motioned to the ground, and dove face first into the concrete floor.
He was no longer with us. John was back in Vietnam, diving for cover behind an imaginary rice paddy dike, desperately trying to save the lives of his men.
In our reality blood spurted from his face as it hit the concrete, and John fell into the throes of a seizure. By this time some of the students were screaming and many were weeping. Others were rushing to his aid as I made my way to his side.
As we cleared the classroom, each student had to step over John to get to the door. Each student had to look into his eyes. His eyes, steel gray and always haunting, were open and alert. But John was not in those eyes. John was somewhere else – somewhere we could not follow.
A few minutes later the ambulance arrived, and I accompanied John Young to the hospital where we were met by his PTSD counselor. For the first time in his life John had suffered a complete flashback to Vietnam. He was mortified – mortified of the weakness that he had demonstrated in front of so many. But his main feeling was one of determination. Vietnam had not beaten him the first time, and it wasn’t going to beat him now.
John Young came back for my very next class, along with his PTSD counselor, to explain what had happened. He faced his own human frailty and shared it with my students. John has been in every class since. It was on that first day, as the stories of the boys of Charlie Company began to become revealed in their fullness, however, that I knew I was going to write a book about this compelling man and the brave band of brothers with whom he had served.