Vietnam veterans and alumni return to Tam

When Donald Smith, a Tam alumnus and former varsity softball coach, arrived in Vietnam to begin his duties as a soldier, showers of enemy rockets confronted him. As soon as the plane had landed, Smith was running for his life towards the safety of the base he had just seen for the first time.

During the week of May 17, three Vietnam War veterans, Kate O’Hara, Ernie Bergman, and Donald Smith gave presentations to Tamalpais High US History classes. Although each veteran had a different war experience, both teachers and students found their stories very informative.

“[The presentations] make history come alive and are really relevant,” said U.S. History teacher Laura Garrett. “These are living, breathing, tangible people who aren’t just stories out of textbooks, and I think that’s the most valuable thing.”

Ernie Bergman attended Tam High, played on the football team, and graduated in 1966. Shortly after graduation he chose to enlist in the U.S. Navy rather than attend college. Bergman wanted students to understand that the Hollywood portrayal of war is nothing like actual war. One of Bergman’s duties in the Navy was to ferry soldiers to and from war zones. His ships would bring a group of men somewhere, drop them off, and then return at a later date to pick them up. Sometimes, during these missions, the Vietcong, Southern Vietnamese guerilla soldiers, would hide in the bushes and shoot at the ships when they got close to land. While in Vietnam, Bergman never once fired a weapon.

Kate O’Hara served as a nurse in Vietnam. At the time, she was working in a Veterans Affairs hospital. She saw the war on the news and decided that she wanted to volunteer in Vietnam as a nurse. Although she was only a medic, O’Hara was in as much immediate danger as Bergman and Smith. O’Hara described the hospitals she worked in, which were portable and practically rocket proof. They were designed so that if the exterior was to be hit by a rocket, the impact inside the building would be minimal and the people would be relatively safe. One of the most difficult parts of the job for O’Hara was providing medical care for the Vietcong. The hospitals were required to take in all patients, not just U.S. soldiers, so quite often she had to care for the guerilla soldiers who were responsible for injuring and killing her fellow Americans.

“To hear from [O’Hara], it was a new experience because when people talk about Vietnam I don’t think about the women, and they saw as much if not more than the men on the front lines,” said junior Mark Hill.

Smith graduated with Bergman in 1966 but unlike Bergman, Smith did not enlist in the army; he was drafted. During the presentation, he described the methods he used to keep himself and his fellow soldiers alive. One technique was to send a few men out to the edge of the base twice a night. There, they would shoot into the dark for two minutes, just in case there was anyone who might be trying to carry out an ambush.

One lesson Smith shared with students was that no matter how good of a soldier someone is, they still need luck to survive. Smith’s life was saved by luck twice while he was recovering from injuries he received during an ambush in which his back and leg were punctured by shrapnel. Although Smith still lacked the use of his leg, he was outside with a group of people but excused himself to use the restroom. As he was leaving, an enemy rocket landed right where Smith had been sitting. Several more rockets fell into the group and Smith began to run away, ripping his stitches and allowing his leg wound to reopen. After a few seconds, his military training and instinct to fight took over and he ran back to try and help whoever he could. As he was going back another rocket landed where he had been standing during the first explosion. Smith’s stories of battle were well received by the students.

“I thought that [Smith] was explicit and entertaining but at the same time he was direct and got the point across that war is bad,” said Hill. “Anyone who has been to war can’t be in favor of war.”

For the past decade, it has been a tradition for several Vietnam Veterans to come and speak to U.S. History classes. Laura Garrett has been a part of arranging the speakers since she was a student teacher in 2004.

Garrett said, “It seemed like a great resource for the students to be able to ask questions and I have continued it along with the other U.S. History teachers every year since then.”

All of the U.S. History teachers work together with the Marin chapter of Vietnam Veterans of America to arrange the presentations. However, each year there is a new person at the chapter working with the school, so the speakers vary.

“Each year it’s run by a different person so each year we get different speakers, which is sort of nice particularly so the teachers can listen to different stories,” Garrett said. The Vietnam presentations are much more candid than a typical lecture would be.

“We haven’t really tried to restrict what has been presented in the past,” said Garrett. “We haven’t had much of a need for that. They usually start the presentations by telling students that they can ask any question they want and that usually opens up a pretty lively and also very open discussion.”

Written by Racine Cemak. This article originally appeared in the June 2010 issue.




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