By Sue Ellen Woodcock
They have met each other twice – one is compelled to tell the stories of the men who fought in the Vietnam War and one is a man from Winthrop who was a leader in one of the most tragic battles of the Vietnam War.
James Wright, PhD., and the former president of Dartmouth College, felt compelled to write about the individual stories of over 130 Vietnam veterans after observing that films and shows like “Apocalypse Now” showed the Woodstock version of the war and not the stories of men like Second Lt. Donald Sullivan of Winthrop who survived the Battle of Hamburger Hill, May 10-20, 1969. Officially known as and the area of Dong Ap Bia, Hill 937, after the elevation displayed on U.S. Army maps, but the American soldiers who fought there dubbed it “Hamburger Hill,” suggesting that those who fought on the hill were “chewed up like a hamburger.”
Wright and Sullivan both spoke at the Winthrop Public Library last Thursday night about the book and their experiences.
The book, “Enduring Vietnam: An American Generation and its War,” recounts the experiences of young American who fought win Vietnam and the families of those who fought but did not return.
“The memories don’t end with the end of the war,” Wright said.
In 2005, Wright began a series of visits to U.S. military medical facilities in Washington, D.C., where he met Marines and other U.S. military personnel who had been wounded in the course of service in Iraq and Afghanistan. (He had himself enlisted in the Marine Corps for three years when he was 17 years old. He was discharged at the rank of Lance-Corporal.) Those visits prompted him with write the book. He was further inspired by the Broadway musical “Hamilton” and a line in one of the songs that said, “Who lives, who dies, who’s going to tell your story.” For some reason those words have stuck in his head and he has become the teller of the stories. All 160 of them.
“No one should ever escape the fact of what we are asking out troops to do,” Wright said. “We have to know their stories better.”
During this era, the U.S. and South Vietnamese troops battled the North Vietnamese. Although the heavily fortified Hill 937 was of little strategic value, U.S. command ordered its capture by a frontal assault, only to abandon it soon thereafter.
Sullivan, of the Army’s 187th Infantry Regiment, received the prestigious Silver Star for his heroic conducted during the Battle of Hill 937.
Wright noted that 40 percent of men and women in the baby boomer generation served in the military. Ten percent of them were in Vietnam.
One of his stories tells of a 14-year old boy who was excited to greet two military men at his door when his parents weren’t home. He let them know he had a brother in the Army, and that he was due home next month. The boy asked if they knew him. The boy was beaming with pride for his brother. The his parents returned home, they knew. Slowly the boy knew. His brother died on June 6 the same date that his father had landed in Normandy years earlier.
Sullivan his time on Hamburger Hill was supposed to have lasted one day. It lingered for 10, with units suffering 70-80 percent casualties.
“It was a violent, extended battle with no clear purpose,” Sullivan said.
Sullivan said he was there for all 10 days and suffers from PTSD because of it. He had 42 men in his platoon and 18 survived.
“Soldiers described it as being ground up in battle,” he said.
The veterans also must endure the effects of Agent Orange, a defoliant used to take down the jungle landscape.
Wright has worked with Sens. Jim Webb, John Warner, and Chuck Hagel on language for the GI Bill that was passed by Congress and signed by President Bush in June 2008.
Since he stepped down from the Dartmouth presidency in 2009, Wright has focused on support of veterans and research, writing, and public speaking on matters relating to education and veterans.
Today, Sullivan, who at one time contemplated becoming a priest, is a highly decorated war veteran and he is a Winthrop Library trustee and served as president from 1998 until June 2009.
He has assisted in several studies on post traumatic stress syndrome.
Resources for Veterans on Agent Orange and PTSD:
For information on the Agent Orange Registry contact public health.va.gov/exposures/agentorange/benefits/registry-exam.asp
Wikipedia.org/wiki/Agent_Orange for an overview with references and links.
For information on post-traumatic stress disorder contact the crisis help line at 1-800-273-8255 or veteranscrisisline.net
Wright’s book can also be found at the Book Depot in Winthrop Center.