There is something glaring missing from the pages of Carlisle High School yearbooks.
History teacher Kevin Wagner noticed it while researching the years 1960 to 1975.
“There’s not one mention of the Vietnam War,” said Wagner, the social studies program chair for Carlisle Area School District.
“No memorial or recognition. ... Nothing on a single page. It was like it almost didn’t happen.”
Perhaps the issue was too divisive to chance space in the yearbook. Maybe the editors felt torn over how to approach it in a community steeped in military history. It could be the whole thing seemed far off or off-putting, a current event best forgotten.
Yet the fighting that raged in Southeast Asia defined a generation of Americans and shaped the society around them.
Setting things right
“Now more than ever we have come to the point where we are so far removed from the Vietnam War that we need to honor and recognize the men and women who served,” Wagner said.
He plans to do just that, but he needs the help of the Carlisle community. Wagner needs people to come forward with information on people who either attended or graduated from Carlisle High School and served in the Vietnam War.
This includes men and women who attended or graduated prior to the actual war years but made careers or long-term enlistments out of their military service. For example, Wagner came across the name of a 1939 graduate who was an officer in Southeast Asia.
Specifically, he is looking for the name, years attended or year graduated and service branch of each Carlisle High School alumnus. The goal is to list information of those who served and made it back on a plaque that would be mounted in the main hallway of the McGowan building, where it would be visible to people attending events. The names are due in March so that the plaque could be unveiled in May.
But his tribute to Vietnam veterans would not end there. Wagner wants to create a memorial to those Carlisle High School alumni who were killed or missing in action. As of Wednesday, he had 11 names of the fallen.
Wagner envisions a flag case for each veteran with a folded flag in each case. The name of the dead or missing service member would be etched or engraved on the case. “Underneath each one of those would be a framed short biography with a photograph,” Wagner said.
The plaque and memorial are in the very early stages of development and will be funded by donations from the public, Wagner said. The school district has set up a special account to receive donations for this project.
To contribute a name or arrange a monetary donation, contact Wagner at 717-240-6800, ext. 26132 or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The idea for this project grew out of a growing fascination with the Vietnam War that has developed in this country over the past year or two, Wagner said. He mentioned in particular the Ken Burns documentary series on the war that aired on PBS in September.
Along with that, Wagner noticed while memorials exist in the high school for military veterans, there was nothing substantial for Vietnam War veterans. There is a plaque on the wall across from the library entrance that mainly lists Carlisle High School alumni who died in World War II with the names of the Vietnam War fallen beneath that.
“As a history teacher, personally, I felt that was very odd,” Wagner said. “They should be deserving of their own wall of honor or memorial.”
The idea to pay them tribute solidified earlier this year after Wagner attended the annual teachers’ conference of the Pennsylvania Council for the Social Studies.
This conference offers educators professional development opportunities including workshops on best practices, teaching methods and curriculum ideas. Wagner was a presenter.
One school near Philadelphia offers a yearlong project for high school students interested in researching graduates who served in Vietnam. One step in Wagner’s effort has been to contact Carlisle-area veterans’ organization to enlist their help.
Spreading the word
Rick Olson answered the call as commander of VFW Post 477. He is an Air Force veteran of the Vietnam War who loaded air-to-ground munitions onto F-4 Phantom jets in Da Nang from 1968 to 1969.
“I applaud him in his efforts,” said Olson, adding that Wagner is in for a challenge to make sure that the list of alumni who served in Vietnam is as thorough as possible. His advice to Wagner is to consider any and all avenues of getting the word out to the public.
Olson knows the challenge firsthand. A graduate of Mandan High School in North Dakota, he tried years ago to compile the names of alumni who served for a class gift, but it was not easy.
To help Wagner, Olson has distributed information on the Vietnam memorial project to post membership in the hope individuals come forward. Olson estimates about 40 percent of the post’s 600 members with military ties are Vietnam-era veterans.
After Vietnam, Olson joined the Army and served in air defense artillery units. He retired in 1983 with the rank of major and is an Army ambassador with the Army Heritage and Education Center. In that capacity, Olson interviews World War II-era veterans for their memories and helps to organize bus trips to the national memorial on that conflict in Washington, D.C.
Many Vietnam War veterans who came home from Southeast Asia were insulted, spat upon and chastised just because they served in a controversial war.
Despite that, they are proud to have served their country and are happy to see how far the country has turned around to honor them for their service, Olson said.