Written by: Byron Edgington
Date: July 1, 2015
Warrant Officer Byron Edgington & Crew Chief Gil Alvorado at Khe Sanh, January 1971
Recently I was invited to speak to a third year American History class at New Albany (OH) High School. Teachers Eric and Christine presented several topics to their students during the school year, one of the last before summer break being the war in Vietnam. Eric and Christine learned through a mutual friend about my veteran status, and my participation in the war as an Army Warrant Officer and helicopter pilot. They brought me into their class as an eyewitness and participant in one of America’s longest and most divisive conflicts.
Needless to say, I was gratified and pleased at the invitation. As I explained to the class, in the forty-four years since I returned from Vietnam I’d been asked to speak about my war experience exactly five times, once every nine years give or take. What a wonderful surprise met me in that class! For all the talk these days of disconnected, self-absorbed teens with their attachment to social media, technological interaction with their world and disdain for what we consider important, those students did not fit those assumptions. They asked great questions—some I never expected—and they engaged me in ways I might have gotten from people much older and wiser. They were interested, attentive, well prepared.
Looking at the class of teenagers that day, I couldn’t help seeing myself all those years ago. I imagined them being pulled from school as I was, drafted into the military and sucked into the maw of the foreign conflict that vectored me and a lot of my friends away from the lives we’d planned. I saw some of those kids going off to war and not coming home, and the anguish that tragedy would cause their families and loved ones. They seemed so young, innocent and full of potential that hearing them ask about Vietnam gave me a new look at the unknowable loss this nation endured because of our misguided effort in that war, and all the young minds and voices that fell forever silent.
W-1 Edgington (third from left) with fellow pilots
Camp Eagle Vietnam 1970
One thing I told the students right away was this: despite anything they heard from me, regardless of what opinions or conclusions they formed, I wanted them to make certain that those conclusions were their own. I understood as I spoke to them that as a so called expert, my words carried a lot of weight, much more perhaps than anything they may have read in a textbook, or seen in a video documentary. I advised them to listen with a helping of skepticism, and keep an open mind. I tried to avoid politicizing the information, and I hope I succeeded.
I told them about the turbulent sixties, and how polarized the nation was back then between young people and the ‘hard hats,’ my father’s generation, a group of Americans who’d returned victorious from a World War, and couldn’t fathom my generation’s rebellion against the conflict in South Asia. I mentioned the military presence on campus at OSU, tear gas hovering on the Oval, students marching on campuses nationwide protesting the war. I told them about Kent State, and Jackson State and the disruption Vietnam caused, and how the draft found me, finally, and forced me into uniform. I described my induction, basic training, flight school, then flying in Vietnam delivering troops and supplies, evacuating the wounded and the dead. I told them war stories, and personal experiences. Once again I imagined the kid I was at their age doing those things, and the realization chilled me. As attentive and engaged as they appeared in that classroom, they were so damn young! I felt like I’d grown up much too fast, and that I’d been old for a very long time.
Top: W-1 Edgington @downtown Hue’ helipad
Below: with Miss America 1970, Pamela Ann Eldred @ Eagle Beach RVN 1970
When the period ended I thanked them for listening, gave a nod to their teachers for having me, and wrapped things up by asking for questions. As I said, some of those questions astonished me with their depth and forethought. “What was your first impression of Vietnam?” (I had to be honest—the first thing I noticed when I landed in Bien Hoa that day was the smell of burning human waste, a very common response from Vietnam vets) “If you could keep your deferment by keeping your grades up, why didn’t you?” (A question I’ve asked myself in secret many times) “Did the other men in Vietnam think we could win?” (I reiterated my position that all comments were my own, but I didn’t hear many colleagues in Vietnam express optimism at our chances) Then a very insightful question: “What would winning be?” (I had to concede that the answer to that question is, like Bob Dylan said, still ‘Blowin’ in the wind.’ No one has ever defined ‘winning’ in Vietnam).
When I finished my address to the students at New Albany High, I thanked them again for their attention and left. The lesson I took from going to class that day is this: it’s easy to force our opinions and conclusions on young people, especially when the topic concerns something as momentous to them, and perhaps life-altering, as military participation and war itself.
I hope I conveyed to those students that where my generation failed, I believe, is in our inability to demand transparency from our leadership, and to simply ask the right questions. I hope they learned that taking responsibility involves ignoring the powerful urge to fit in, and that their difference and personal integrity matter more than social acceptance. I think they get that. We hear of self-absorbed, insouciant kids these days, young people who disregard pressing social issues, but I didn’t see a lot of those kids in that class. I saw a bunch of attentive, courteous students eager to hear what I had to say. I hope they invite me back.