The scars of a war that ended more than 40 years ago are still fresh in the hearts and minds of four U.S. veterans who were willing to share their stories Friday morning with the cast and crew of Smith-Cotton High School’s most recent production, “A Piece of My Heart.”
Students involved in the production as well as students from S-C history classes listened intently as Army Sgt. Jim Gaertner, Army Pfc. Larry Stevenson, Air Force Staff Sgt. Greg Katzing and Air Force Airman 1st Class Fran Waddell recounted stories of their military experience.
“I think for all of us the message we deliver today may differ but the reason we wanted to come and speak today is because we want to get the message out about the importance of supporting the men and women who served and continue to serve in the military,” Gaertner said. “For me, if I had to do it all over again I would do the same thing,
“It is by the grace of God that I am still here but the reason I want to tell my story is to keep the memory of those who didn’t come back alive, and especially that of my best friend, Mike Waters, alive,” Gaertner said. “My story is their story and that is why it is so important to tell the story.”
Gaertner, who served two tours in Vietnam, said although it was a confusing times for many, the decision to enlist was simple.
“I came from a military family,” Gaertner said. “It seemed pretty simple to me: freedom was good and communism was bad.
“I wanted to do all I could to help my country and the people I was fighting with,” he added. “One belief we all held was that no matter what the circumstance you didn’t leave anyone behind either living or dead; we knew we would all leave together or we would all die together.”
It is the men and women who died and their treatment of the survivors that Stevenson will not forget.
“Jim and I are good friends,” Stevenson said “But this is where we disagree: I am not a strong supporter of Vietnam.
“There are 15,229 names on that wall in Washington (the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial) and to this day I’m still not sure what they died for.”
Stevenson, who received a Silver Star for bravery for his service, told the students that after the War the mistreatment the returning soldiers received was a disgrace and something he hopes to keep “on the front burner” so those who serve today will never have to experience.
“I never want to see the military personnel treated the way we were,” Stevenson said. “We were sent by our government to fight there and then we were turned on by this country.
“The public came after the vets and not Congress, the ones who were making the decisions,” he added. “When I landed in St. Louis I remember a bartender poured a beer on me and another spit on me; I never want to see that happen again.”
Katzing recounted a similar story to that of Stevenson.
“When I returned home, I was called a ‘baby killer’ but I don’t remember killing any babies, I just went there and did what I was told to do,” he said.
“I did it for my country; I didn’t like it, but I really didn’t have a choice,” he added.
Katzing told those gathered that he was a young man who had received a baseball scholarship to play for the University of Connecticut but those dreams changed one day when he returned home after work.
“I came home and my mom said that I got a letter from the military,” Katzing said. “I thought that was funny because I knew I had never written them.
“I didn’t really know what it was but it didn’t take me long to figure out that it was my draft notice,” he added. “Within 45 days I had to report for training once I got there. I never had the chance to tell my parents goodbye before I was sent overseas.”
Katzing added that he never went to the jungle to see combat as Gaertner and Stevenson did. It was his duty to protect and secure the U.S. bases in the region.
Waddell did not serve oversees but instead was responsible for caring for the soldiers stateside.
“I was a young, feisty, little thing and I remember hearing people say that they didn’t get letters from home so I thought I would go and cheer them up,” Waddell said “That’s why I enlisted — I wanted to help those who were serving our country.
“I enjoyed being in the military,” Waddell added. “I wanted to do my part for my country.”
When Waddell said the three men on the stage with her were heroes, Gaertner respectfully disagreed.
“The true heroes are the ones who didn’t make it back,” Gaertner said. “They epitomize what it means to be a soldier and a hero.”
One of the reasons for the forum, according to Terri Turner, S-C speech and theatre instructor, was to tie into the performance, “A Piece of My Heart.”
“A few years ago when we did the “Diary of Anne Frank,” I was fortunate to bring the granddaughter of a survivor of the Holocaust to come in and speak to the students,” Turner said. “I feel that really made an impression on them and it is something they will take with them for the rest of their lives.
“When I decided upon this production I knew I wanted to do something similar,” she added. “Any time you can do something cross-curricular and help make those connections it is very beneficial for the students.”
Turner said the focus of the play is primarily the experiences of female veterans but finding women who served during the Vietnam era was difficult.
“I am very grateful that I made contact with Mrs. Waddell but I am also grateful for everyone who came to speak today,” Turner said. “The more involved the students can become the better, I am certain they will take away a great deal from their words today.”
All four veterans wanted to impart that telling their stories was an important part of the healing process.
“I’m glad it’s over and I’m glad I made it back, but 50 years later it still hurts,” Stevenson said. “I’m proud of those who serve today and they deserve our respect.
“When you come out though, it is with a different perspective and you have to get it out; I had a chip on my shoulder and I was angry for a very long time,” he added. “For those who serve, the war is not over when the soldier comes home.”
Smith-Cotton High School’s performance of “A Piece of My Heart,” will run April 8-10 in the Heckart Center for the Performing Arts.
Hope Lecchi can be reached at 660-826-1000 ext. 1484