by Michael Orange, VVAW newsletter, “The Veteran,” Fall 2012 [link to article]
Speaking Truth to Students
By Michael Orange
“Did you kill anybody?’ This is, no doubt, the most frequently asked question when I give my “Truth in Recruiting” presentations in the schools. It always takes me back to my first time; “Bring a Vet to School Day” back in 1984 in my daughter’s 6th grade class. It was my first try peeking out of the veterans’ closet and not too pleasant of an experience. I got the first few words out of the seven-word truth, “It was my job to kill people,” choked up, spun around, and lost it right there for several minutes. It’s gotten better since then after hundreds more presentations, but it still exacts a heavy psychic toll, not just on me, but on all who are willing to expose their participation in our country’s wars of aggression.
Since 2008, members of the Minneapolis St. Paul Chapter 27 of Veterans for Peace have worked hard with representatives of Women Against Military Madness and other groups to gain official access for our speakers and tablers to the local schools. No small task indeed. I’m proud to report that our speakers made twenty-five presentations this school year.
A typical high school class for me begins with shouted-out guesses to my list of ten startling questions about the effects of war, PTSD and Military Sexual Trauma, and the half-truth pitches from recruiters (available upon request). I ask them not to look at the answers that are on the back of the sheet and explain that I will cover them during my presentation. From the students I observe avid interest, tears, and an occasional yawn. I always get a surprise question; like the time a girl last spring, with a look of deep concern, asked, “Are you OK now?”
I keep a folder bursting with the cards and letters I’ve received. The following excerpts are from two college students who wrote this past year:
“I very much appreciated your visit to our classroom…. It was so important to hear your stories … as many are not willing to talk about their experiences or perhaps not around any longer to do so…. I especially appreciate that you are a Veteran for Peace. I feel that it is so important for people who have firsthand experience with participating in war are part of the peace movement, and I feel that you and those like you give a different face to the protesters of war and purveyors of peace.”
“During your presentation, I was impressed with your honesty. You were able to share a very personal part of your life; your year at war and after without ‘sugar coating’ the events or their outcomes. This helped me understand that ‘war poisons veterans’ just as you had said, but you made me realize how much family members also share the heartbreak and sacrifices of war.”
When the sound of the bell signals it’s time to rush to the next class (usually in the midst of one of my long-winded answers to a straightforward question), the smiles, handshakes, and sincere thanks confirm that this is, as my wife, Cynthia, calls it, holy work.
As a Marine in Vietnam, Michael experienced combat in numerous search-and-destroy missions and patrols during his one-year tour of duty (1969-70). Afterwards, he returned to his former university campus, Kent State, in May 1970, just before Ohio National Guardsmen shot 13 of his fellow students, killing four. In 2001, he published a memoir of his experiences, “Fire in the Hole: A Mortarman in Vietnam”. Michael teaches a class on the history of the Vietnam War at venues including the University of Minnesota’s Complete Scholar Program. He joined the VVAW at the famed April 1971 protest in DC.