Focusing on the concept that “sacrifice without remembrance is meaningless,” Craig Blackman enlisted students in his advanced placement American history class at Indian River High School in Chesapeake, Virginia, to study the lives of twenty-five local men who died in the Vietnam War. Twenty-three of them were killed in action. He had the students find and interview the men’s family members and friends, research their unit records, and write the stories of their pre-war lives and military service.
Blackman has compiled the students’ findings into The Long Journey Home: The Untold Stories of Forgotten Soldiers (292 pp. $11.00 paper).
Sound historical scholarship forms the book’s roots. Page after page overflows with notes that validate the students’ findings. A bibliography is loaded with primary sources. Several of the students overachieved on the assignment and wrote longer-than-required accounts of their subjects, including their units’ activities. Some wrote wrote about in-country situations and locations previously unknown to me.
Despite growing up close together in Chesapeake, the men had diverse backgrounds: White, black, Native American; an only child; one of thirteen children; good guys and bad actors; draftees and enlistees. There’s an almost even split between those who were in the Army and in the Marines; only one officer is profiled. Their deaths stretched from 1966-70; fourteen took place in 1968. They shared a grim commonality in military assignments: straight from training to Vietnam in the combat arms. Nine died while still in their teens.
Each man’s story reveals a distinct personality. Photographs flesh out their personalities. A few experienced a rapid and perhaps premature transition from youth to adulthood. Determination to do the right thing prevailed among them. One definitely deserves his own book.
The students learned to appreciate the sacrifices made to American values by people barely older than themselves, even as a result of questionable diplomacy. “These high school students will never be the same,” Blackman says. “Interacting with the Gold Star families forever sculpted them emotionally and intellectually.”
The biographies are both sad and joyful. They brought unexpected resolution to some family members of the deceased by memorializing the deaths beyond a name engraved on a wall.
Blackman’s project peaked with a 2014 “special reception honoring Chesapeake citizens who made the ultimate sacrifice in the Vietnam War,” followed three days later by a Memorial Day ceremony. Relatives and friends of the men in the book attended both events.
Blackman also describes how he organized the project. In an appendix, he includes the worksheets he designed to guide his students’ research. Initially, his efforts produced spotty results, and he almost stopped the endeavor. Now he wants other educators to emulate this method for teaching American history.