No More Vietnams by
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My 10th grade Geometry teacher was William Sturley. He had just graduated from college and received a one-year deferment to teach us. He had gone through school on an ROTC scholarship and was due to ship out to Vietnam as soon as this teaching year was over. He was small and sturdy with glasses, an infectious smile and great enthusiasm for his subject and students.

His students were less enthusiastic about him. They called him “Boom-Boom Billy” because he was so gung-ho about the military, Vietnam and service to his country. He did military drills for us at the front of the classroom. The kids were brutal to him, but his good nature persisted. He a was newbie teacher and it showed, but what he lacked in experience, he made up in enthusiasm. Patti was in this class with me and we recently reminisced about him fondly, thinking some kids had teased him good-naturedly, though I reminded her that others had been less pleasant to the young man. Vietnam was already profoundly disliked by all of us. It was a war we did not support or believe in and we did not distinguish between serving our country and supporting that terrible conflict. Nevertheless, he soldiered on.

Before leaving for his military duty, he sent a surprising letter to my parents. My mother saved it for a scrapbook she put together for me, full of awards and accomplishments. Dated June 4, 1968, it read:

Dear Mr. and Mrs. Sarason:

As you probably realize the impersonal contact between home and school is often inadequate for expressing the progress and standing of most students.
Although there are many students of outstanding academic ability there are few who possess the qualities needed to place them perceptively above their peers. I have found Betsy to be one of these rare people. She is undoubtedly a very capable student and, I’m happy to report, one who always does her best. Betsy possesses the charm, wit, maturity and leadership abilities to carry her far. I must say that I really admire her integrity and honestness not only in her schoolwork, but in all her endeavors.
Your daughter is a fine young lady, the type of student who makes teaching an exciting and rewarding profession. Betsy is a credit to both you and herself and she should be a source of great pride for your whole family.

Sincerely,
William K. Sturley
Teacher, Mathematics Department

I was touched that he would praise me so and reach out in such an extraordinary way to my parents. The letter remains in my scrapbook, rarely looked at. I was surprised by it recently.

Boom-Boom Billy went off to Vietnam…I don’t know where. We got word that he was badly injured, a grenade exploded close to him, leaving him with shrapnel wounds in one hand and a leg, but scarring his psyche more profoundly.

During our senior year he came back to substitute teach. Patti and I visited him on our lunch hour. We eagerly sought him out. We found him in the hallway by the math classrooms, a hollowed-out man. He showed us his maimed hand. We only had to look at him to see the joy was gone from his eyes. We didn’t know about PTSD in those days, or what horrible things he had witnessed, though one only had to look at him, for it was written on his face. We teenagers tried to comfort our former teacher, but there was little we could do, beyond greeting him, listening to him, showing we cared and were happy to see him. His eyes remained expressionless. We saw first-hand the damage of war.

In World War II, we knew why we were fighting. In all subsequent aggressions, it has not been about our survival, or our personal rights. Now we hear saber rattling again on the Korean peninsula with nuclear arms in the mix and in the Mid-East with nothing but human misery and ethnic conflicts that don’t involve us. We need to keep our heads and learn to be humans, not war machines.

Profile photo of Betsy Pfau Betsy Pfau
Retired from software sales long ago, two grown children. Theater major in college. Singer still, arts lover, involved in art museums locally (Greater Boston area). Originally from Detroit area.


Tags: Vietnam, war wounds, math teacher, PTSD
Characterizations: been there, moving, right on!, well written

Comments

  1. smithlouise says:

    This portrait of just one man sums up the human cost of those who fought and survived. Perhaps it was the height of Mr. Sturley’s patriotism that brought on the depth of his disillusionment. Do cynical soldiers escape the worst of PTSD?
    Louise Farmer Smith

  2. Betsy, what a significant experience you had. I appreciate you sharing it with us. Your strong writing set up a powerful contrast between gung-ho anticipation and your ‘hollowed-out man.’ How vivid! You also beautifully represented the empathy and compassion that we carried as war resisters. The care and sorrow for our draft-driven brothers (and a few sisters) was later overshadowed by the trumped-up images of spat-upon Viet returnees. The aftermath of the Vietnam War still carries open wounds into this day. A sad but beautiful tale — Billy Got His Gun

  3. John Zussman says:

    A haunting portrait. I love your use of the phrase, “he soldiered on.” And I think you’re spot on when you say “we did not distinguish between serving our country and supporting that terrible conflict.” That was true of both sides, as conservatives accused antiwar demonstrators of undermining our troops. Yet in Vietnam—as in Iraq and Afghanistan—it seemed clear to me that the best way to support our troops was to BRING THEM HOME.

  4. Suzy says:

    This is a powerful story, Betsy! You paint such a vivid picture of this man both before and after Vietnam. It’s quite shocking, and no, we didn’t know about PTSD back then but probably all the returnees had it in one form or another. Your title is No More Vietnams, which is a noble sentiment, but I fear there will always be more Vietnams and the present time seems more dangerous than ever.

  5. muzziesgirl says:

    A well-written story. I was drawn in immediately. We were so unaware, weren’t we? So quick to judge what we don’t understand. Reading yours and other stories about Vietnam and its aftermath makes it hard to feel optimistic in the face of events in the world today. But, as you wrote, we will soldier. Thanks!

  6. This was an important, revealing story of a man I feel I understand. As it is said, no one who experiences combat is unchanged. But, all who served in Vietnam were not equally affected. Most impacts were felt by those who served in direct combat against humans on the ground and in the air–throughout Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. We should be grateful to Betsy Pfau for taking the time to describe in such moving language the history of William Sturley–as he was before his combat experiences. I wish more people would do that for the deserving veterans they know. Reports that joyfully reflect the souls, accomplishments and personal dignity of their lives before combat need to be most remembered. Having worked for years with trying to help turn around the lives of many homeless veterans, the most important thing we can do for those who have lost faith in human nature and life is to help them remember who THEY were, and to help them restore their self respect and faith within a supportive community. In my experience, new or renewed faith provides a more lasting path towards peace and reconciliation for veterans suffering from acute PTSD than psychological counseling.

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      Thank you for your remarks. I think support for those who have suffered is important. Support comes in many forms and you advocate for your form. As a person of the Jewish faith, I would not find my strength there, but understand that many do. But the important message is to seek a group of some sort that works for you.

    • John Zussman says:

      Thank you, Colonel Bob, for your service, for your dedication to wounded warriors, and for your reminder that our obligation to veterans does not end when they come home. On Memorial Day and every day, we need to understand the way that combat changes the lives, character, and psyche of all who participate in it.

  7. smithlouise says:

    colonelbobfrc speaks from personal experience aiding homeless veterans. His own experience in Vietnam has given him an understanding of their outlook on life that no civilian can match. His powerfully written piece here in MyRetrospect calls for us to help the veterans remember who They were. These are the men I see everyday on the streets of Capitol Hill within the shadow of the white-domed Capitol building. How many generations since the Vietnam War will its suffering be felt not only by fatherless children, but by the children abandoned by these men who beg on the streets. Unfortunately our soldiers continue to fight in the blowing sand and burning heat of Afghanistan and Syria, sowing seeds of future unhinged children and bitterness. Last year a resilient young man returned to my neighborhood from this current battlefield, to marry and father a child. He began working with young people to whom his experience, even if left unstated, lent authenticity to his sympathy. To the shock of all who knew him he suddenly shot and killed his best friend and himself. PTSD has wrecked the minds of many men and women all of whom need the comfort of any faith-based community that gives them peace as well as the care of the best resources psychiatry has to offer.

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      Thank you for adding this powerful personal commentary. I agree with your comments and believe expressed them myself when I said the important message was to seek the support of the best group that will work for the particular person, be that faith-based or psychiatric.

  8. Laurie Levy says:

    What a powerful story. Wars have ruined the lives of so many survivors who come home with PTSD and grave physical injuries. Our veterans deserve so much better care than they receive.

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      Thank you, Laurie. Yes, this never-ending war is taking a terrible toll on its survivors. We need only look to last week and the Thousand Oaks shooting. The shooter was a Marine with PTSD. This is a national tragedy of epic proportions and, as you point out, the VA can’t give the proper care our veterans deserve.

  9. John Shutkin says:

    Others have made this point, Betsy, but what makes your story so powerful a statement is that you have told it by way of your own experience with “Boom-Boom Billy.” His tragic transformation really encapsulates the horrors of war. And though we know much more about what was called “shell shock” 100 years ago in WW I and PTSD since Viet Nam, you have brought home just how harrowing — and seemingly inevitable — a result of wartime battle it is. And the amazing fact that you still have the letter that Billy sent to your parents when you were in school and before he went off into service makes the story even more poignant.

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      Thank you, John. Yes this is a personal story that really drives home the point. We can see first hand how a young, vibrant man was transformed by his war-time experience. I confess, I had forgotten that I even had the letter, but came across it while looking for something else in that scrapbook. I was just overwhelmed by his sincerity and kindness; that he would go the extra mile to reach out to my parents in that way. How tragic that his country betrayed his enthusiasm and trust and turned him into a ghost. Even when fighting for a “noble” or just cause, war is hell.

  10. Risa Nye says:

    This puts a very real face on what so many experienced “over there.” Thanks for sharing this story. And how sad for your teacher and his future pupils. As an undergrad at Berkeley, I was in a class with a returned soldier, who limped across campus with a cane. He’d planned to be a college athlete. What I remember was his attitude–despite his injuries. The scars aren’t always on the outside, are they?

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      No the scars aren’t always on the outside, Risa. But I’m happy to report that a high school friend read this story on Facebook and has seen Mr. Sturley since 1970 and says he seems in fine shape. They ride bikes together and can ride my classmate into the ground! So it sounds like he did heal, even on the inside.

  11. Risa Nye says:

    That’s a great follow up to your story! Glad to hear about Mr. S!

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