Local Combat Veterans "Breaking the Silence" at Duke

Thursday, March 15, 2012
Humanities Writ Large

by Sharon Raynor

This is Sharon Raynor again, picking up from my earlier post about my oral history project, "Breaking the Silence: The Unspoken Brotherhood of Vietnam Veterans." When I found out that I would be spending a semester at Duke as a Humanities Writ Large Visiting Faculty Fellow, I knew it would be a wonderful opportunity to bring some veterans to Duke as well. That's what happened on February 21, when some of the men involved in my project came to campus for a recording session in the History Department and a meeting with both Continuing Education and undergraduate students in the Ethnographic Writing: Veterans Oral History Project class in Documentary Studies. One of the visitors was the man who inspired the project — my father, Louis Raynor.

"He who is a friend, is a friend always, and brothers are born for adversity."
- Proverbs 17:7

Group of veterans on the Duke campus
From left to right: Derrick Rowsey, Robert Jones, Ronnie Stokes, John Nesbitt, Ralph Shaw, Robert L. Jones, Jr., John Barnes, Louis Raynor, Charles Helbig

For most of the group it was their first visit to campus as anything but a patient at Duke Medical Center or the Durham VA Hospital. The exception was Robert Jones, Jr., who used to be a Duke bus driver. However, since the beginning of the oral history project, the group has visited many other colleges and universities, including East Carolina University, Mitchell Community College, North Carolina State University, Johnson C. Smith University, and Fayetteville State University. They've traveled to communities around the state to speak at high schools, churches, and libraries, as well. The purpose of the project is not only to educate the public about the Vietnam War and its impact on the local men who fought it but also to help students understand the general importance of documenting life experiences.

The men were warmly greeted by Ray Gavins, Professor of History, and after some introductions they began to talk about their time in Vietnam. They talked about when and where they served, the men they served with, their combat experiences and the things they had to do in order to survive. There was a great deal to say and sometimes several stories were heard at once.

Ronnie Stokes remembered being trained at Ft. Bragg in 1968 and arriving in Vietnam on July 3, 1969. His first impression was of unbelievable heat and what he believed was the smell of urine. He said, "I realized then that I had been sent to Vietnam to die and I was determined not to die there. ... I try not to focus on the gruesome stories of war. It's hard to think about the fact that you were standing beside a friend and in the next moment all that is left of him is his smoking boots because he was just killed."

"If there is to be trouble, let it be in my day so that my child may have peace."
- Thomas Paine

The veterans also spoke about their daily struggle, learning to deal with what happened during their time in Vietnam and with the attitudes the encountered back home. Army Veteran Robert Jones said, "It's not fair that soldiers came home and were called baby killers. I don't know if I ever killed a child, but when everybody is fighting, everything is chaos and we had to fight if we wanted to survive."

After the recording session, and after lunch at the Backyard BBQ Pit, we returned to the Center for Documentary Studies to view the photography exhibit, "When Janey Comes Marching Home" by Sascha Pflaeging and Laura Browder. Then we joined Michelle Lanier's Veterans History Project class, where students were able to ask questions about the veterans' lives. We also had a general discussion of oral history and of the importance of documenting the wartime experiences of combat veterans and understanding their struggles with PTSD.

When students asked about the difference between going to war with a unit and going as an individual unattached to a unit, there were various responses. According to Marine Veteran Robert L. Jones, "Even though I trained with a unit, a half dozen guys or so, in Parris Island, South Carolina, I did not want to get too close to them." Army Veteran Louis Raynor agreed, "I simply did not want to know names or faces." Platoon Sergeant and Medic Derrick Rowsey said, "I brought everyone back in my unit, whether they were wounded or not." Drill Sergeant John Nesbit told his unit, "The training I'm giving you, I hope you never have to use, but if you do then you will know what to do."

Another question was about whether the veterans experienced any internal conflicts because of the Civil Rights Movement and the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. Army Veteran Ronnie Stokes responded, "It was difficult to be in the middle of the jungle in the triple dark of night and hear James Brown music and messages directed at black soldiers about fighting in Vietnam for rights that they did not have at home. We could not let those messages affect us if we wanted to survive and return home."

The class ended with students and veterans shaking hands and enjoying a few moments of friendly conversation. Connecting with students here at Duke was another remarkable moment of healing and recovery for our local war veterans.

"Words have weight – you bear with me the weight of my words,
suffering whatever pain this burden causes you – in silence. I bow to you."

- bell hooks, Remembered Rapture

Referenced People

Associate Professor of English, Director of the Graduate Education Program