Revelations from ‘Nam

Aaron Crider

Vietnam is the second most filmed U.S. war next to World War II, but surprisingly, it is the least known war in terms of the experiences U.S. military forces had overseas.

James Smither, a professor in the history department and director of the Veterans History Project at
Grand Valley State University, hopes to change that.

“Unlike World War II, which when you know a particular unit, you can follow it from one frontline to
another, Vietnam is very fragmented even though we sent 1.2 million soldiers there,” Smither said.

He will be moderating a discussion panel with veterans of the Vietnam War as part of the Veterans
History Project, which is in partnership with the Library of Congress. The discussion panels are part of
the “My Year in Vietnam” discussion series beginning Sept. 25.

“We’re trying to get away from canned versions of Vietnam, what you’d see in movies like drugs and
post trauma, and give a broader range of experience of the war,” Smither said.

The discussions will take place throughout the year with three veterans per panel, with the exception
being the first discussion. The first panel will consist of six veterans—three marines who were among
the first battalions sent to Vietnam and three Special Forces soldiers deployed to train native
tribesmen to fight the communist regime.

The discussion series is part of Smither’s personal project, as well—a book about Vietnam that doesn’t
necessarily focus on the geopolitical side of the war or on the debate of whether the U.S. won or lost
the war. Rather, the focus of the book and the project is on the soldiers who fought the war.

“Vietnam is like Afghanistan or Iraq where there is no distinguishable front line, so the stories we get
are either done in movies, which focus on a battle, or we have a singular memoir,” Smither said.
“What’s great about this project is that now many of the veterans are at a point where they want to
share their stories. We’ve designed the panels to include overlapping stories from combat personnel
to support and noncombat personnel, as well.”

Smither said it’s great that the veterans want to talk about Vietnam since many are now in their 60s or
older and may forget portions of their involvement in the war.

“I sent out around 60 invitations and thought that I’d get maybe 12 or so that would say yes,” he said.
“But as I started to get 20 that said yes and then 30, I realized that there were a lot of these guys that
still remembered and wanted to share their stories.”

The Veterans History Project is open to GVSU students, faculty, staff and the general public, as several
of the participants have ties to Grand Rapids and GVSU.

Attendees, especially those students taking one of Smither’s courses or LIB 100, will have multiple
opportunities to have Q&A sessions with those speaking in the classroom settings.

The goal, Smither said, is to think “outside of the box” about the war and establish new parameters
about Vietnam and those involved by looking at the larger picture of the war through the eyes of those
who were on the ground.

For more information and a complete list of events, visit

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