Dayton teacher completes three-month Vietnam odyssey

Kettering resident wants to share stories with veterans, students.

For 14 years, Dayton history teacher Bridget Federspiel’s students have collected veterans’ stories for the Library of Congress’ Veterans History Project.

“I taught the Vietnam War, and we interviewed Vietnam veterans, but I didn’t spend any time teaching about Vietnam after the war,” the Kettering resident said.

Last year, Federspiel applied for and received a Fulbright award to go to Vietnam and create a documentary to help fill that void.

“I interviewed 10 local Ohio Vietnam veterans and asked where they served, what their big memories of Vietnam were and what they wanted to know about the country today,” she said.

Her plan was to find and film those sites as they stand today, with the veterans’ voices sharing their war memories.

She arrived in Vietnam on January 1 and began her three-month venture. During her first week, she explored her home base of Hanoi and visited the late Senator John McCain’s memorial at the site of his capture.

“The main purpose of my Hanoi adventure was to locate memorials to the Christmas bombing in 1972,” she said. “Few remains of the war can be seen in Vietnam except for memorials.”

She visited military cemeteries, one near the DMZ (demilitarized zone).

“Most graves are marked ‘unknown,’ and the large graves contain multiple remains with only the battle site listed on the headstone,” she said.

The graves have small openings covered with loose stones, she said, so the spirit of the deceased can leave.

“These cemeteries are in every town. And, similar to the U.S., remains are still being found, identified if possible, and buried.”

Sites on her venture included the War Museum and Imperial Palace in Ho Chi Minh City, the Mekong Delta, Danang, Ba Na, and Hue, where a major battle took place.

“Walking in the areas where those veterans served has been extremely important to me,” Federspiel noted. “Traveling on the Mekong Delta I thought constantly about the U.S. Navy veteran I spoke to in November who served there.

Black Virgin Mountain in Southern Vietnam is a dormant volcano that was used as an American base. Today, the area contains many pagodas and is a hiking paradise, Federspiel said.

“Dr. Hardy from the Dayton VA served on the base, and I want to show him what it looks like today,” she said.

At one site, Federspiel talked to a local man about his memories of the Marines in the area.

“He showed me the exact location our Marine had described. When I Facetimed the Marine about it, he was grateful and teary-eyed, and remembered sleeping between a few of the rocks shown in my photographs,” Federspiel said.

Such experiences will change her curriculum.

“I will add the numbers – millions - of people that the Vietnamese lost, along with pictures of the Christmas bombing of 1972 and its effect on the war both in Vietnam and the U.S.

“I will definitely add a history of Vietnam after 1975 - war with China, war with Vietnam ending Pol Pot’s regime, the economic policy changes, and the period of isolation in the 1980s,” Federspiel said.

After President Clinton’s visit, things began to change, she said, and Vietnam experienced huge growth.

“The small village of Dong Ha has grown 40 times since 1975, and Ho Chi Minh City looks like any other western city of 10 million people,” she said.

She’ll include organizations like Peace Trees, where she spent time working with young people, that work at helping Vietnam recover through de-mining, building kindergartens, introducing new crops, and economic recovery.

Federspiel was returning to the U.S. this week and will resume her Stivers teaching schedule.

“I’ll use my regular curriculum, but will include several lessons on my experiences in Vietnam,” she said.

“Eventually, the documentary will be finished; then, I can use that in my classroom, and it will be available to other teachers. I’ll hold ‘viewings’ of it in the area, at VFWs and anywhere I can get it shown.”

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