October 28, 2008
Tifton - Sometimes a teacher uses more than books and lectures to help students better understand history. In this case, a special teacher made arrangements for the Moving Viet Nam Wall to visit her school.
No better place exists to understand history than at Tift County's 8th Street Middle School in Susan Tucker's classroom. Look for a bulletin board with a flag by classroom 108 to find her special teaching place.
"This has never happened in Tifton before and it won't probably happen again in my lifetime," says Susan to one of her classes about the visit of the Moving Viet Nam Wall.
She applied for the Wall to come to Tifton in October, 2006, and for months didn't hear anything. In February, 2008 she found out for sure. The Wall would arrive October 23, two years after she made the request on behalf of her school's History Club.
"February to October seemed so far away," says Susan.
She needed a small army to help since she stepped outside her professional comfort zone.
"I'm a teacher. I'm at home in my classroom in front of my students. I'm not a home in front of a group of adults who I know have more experience at these things. I'm not a fund raiser," says Susan about numerous community meetings held to organize local arrangements for the Wall.
Initially, it took four thousand dollars to secure its four-day stay, and she raised six thousand more dollars to pay other expenses.
"To raise the money has been very, very difficult," says Susan, especially considering the economic recession, but all the money was raised. "I don't like owing anyone."
She worked night and day between February and October. Almost every waking moment when she wasn't teaching involved handling the endless list of details and she didn't do it alone. Teenagers from her school's History Club spent hours writing soldiers names on the 900 American flags' wooden staffs.
Thirteen year-old Jackie Cervantes wrote some of the names on the flags' staffs.
"I wondered what they went through, through the war. What they went through when people were rude to them. I wondered about a lot of things," says Jackie.
More flags needed distributing, and Susan drafted anyone who would help place an additional 10,000 flags along streets throughout the town to mark the historical occasion.
As soon as the Wall arrived and volunteers helped erect it, the students saw veterans cry, veterans support other veterans with pats of encouragement on their shoulders, and families of veterans who came to see the name of their loved one etched into the Wall. They heard soldiers tell their stories. The Wall has 58,256 names of soldiers killed in the war.
Some of the Club members saw Susan escort her father out to see it. All her hours and hours of work, all the uncertainty had a single purpose.
"I'm bringing it to my dad," says Susan. "He'll never get to Washington, DC to see the original one."
Her dad, Jim Cattell, made a career in the Air Force.
"I thought she was crazy," says Jim who knows that when his daughter, Susan, gets something on her mind, she'll find a way to make it happen.
Eighteen months before Jim's retirement from the Air Force he got orders to go to Viet Nam.
"When I went to Viet Nam I was an old man. I left on my 38th birthday. Most of the names on here (the Wall) were under 25," says Jim.
Three panels down from where Jim stood a lady with red roses in her left arm searched for a special name, Donald R. Brogdon, on the east side, panel 56 out of 148 panels. She found the name at the end of the first row of names. She kissed her fingers repeatedly and then touched the etched name.
"He was my only son. He was only 18 years of age when he was in Viet Nam. He was only there a short period of time; died instantly," says Betty Moon, his mother. "It brings me very close to him and to know he had a purpose in life."
Some survivors found a visit to the Wall emotionally healing. One soldier looked at each panel, studying names and then started crying. Another veteran patted his shoulder in support.
Viet Nam veterans didn't get a hero's welcome like veterans of World War II when they returned home. The country showed its mixed feeling about its involvement with demonstrations, something unheard of in a country that honors its soldiers.
"When we left Viet Nam, we were told to put a set of civilian clothes in our carry-on luggage. It was not a particularly friendly time at all," says Jim about returning to the US where protests happened regularly.
"Its made up for the parade. It's given me an opportunity to meet other veterans and exchange war stories. It's been a wonderful experience for me," says Jim.
It opened his eyes to something he didn't realize so long ago.
"I think of the affect that this has had on so many families. These names who were fathers, uncles and cousins," says Jim.
While his daughter, Susan, worked so hard to get the Wall to Tifton for him to see, Jim feels he did nothing special to deserve it.
"I'm just one of over five million men and women who served in Viet Nam at one time or another. I didn't do anything special at all," says Jim.
No doubt other veterans felt the same way, but for four days, if they chose, they could remember participating in a war that many people wanted to forget.
"It's just humbling to see this thing," says Jim.
And humbling to know all the time, energy and effort it took to get it here.