Lennis France, a member of Kingsport's Vietnam Veterans of America, visits with Scott County student Jesse Egan. Contributed photo.
GATE CITY — Last month, several local Vietnam veterans were invited to speak to students at the Scott County Career and Technical Center in Gate City about their experiences in the military.
Around a dozen or so members of the Vietnam Veterans of America — Chapter 979 in Kingsport took part in the event, which involved both of Rhonda Kilgore’s leadership classes at the school.
VVA member Lennis France, who helps organize the group’s forays into local schools, said the class was one of several dozen he and his fellow veterans have taught since they began paying visits to school campuses more than two years ago.
“We’ve done this in front of about 30,000 kids over two and a half years,” France said. “Our knees were knocking, and a lot of us felt like we were ready to puke the first time we did this. I’m serious. These guys were terrified.
“But once we got started and got to talking about it, we just kept having more want to come and participate,” he said.
Kilgore said the veterans, who represented all four branches of the military, were among the more anticipated guests she’s had talk with her students.
“In leadership I attempt to have an outside guest speaker each week because students need to see that we have leaders in all facets of our community,” Kilgore said. “From day one, this group wanted veterans to come speak. I received Mr. France’s name and when I booked them, he stressed to me they were coming to ‘teach’ and that no history textbook could give the students what they had to offer.”
On the day of their visit, the Vietnam veterans took over two classes, taking both groups of students on a first- hand recounting of a soldier’s life during the era when they served.
Several students enrolled in Kilgore’s class described the veterans’ stories and demonstrations as eye-opening.
“In general, I gained a lot of knowledge and respect for the veterans,” SCCTC student Dylan Kinkead said. “It made me realize what it would be like to be sent to war, willingly or unwillingly, at my current age of 17. I appreciate the time and effort they put into the event.”
Kinkead’s classmate, Solomon Cole, expressed similar gratitude for the veterans and their actions. “The way it affected me was their stories were different but they were all like brothers,” Cole said. “They would die for each other and they would go to war all over again no matter how much they didn’t want to.”
Kilgore added: “This group of veterans had a considerable impact on our students. We are grateful for their service then and their efforts now to educate our students by volunteering to speak and give of themselves freely and openly. We were blessed by them plain and simple.”
France said the experience of speaking to students has proven to be therapeutic for the veterans who take part.
“I don’t know about us helping the kids, but the encouragement kids give us by just listening has really made a terrific impact on the Vietnam veterans,” France said. “A lot of the guys just really haven’t talked about it and now they are talking about it. ... There’s just so much of this stuff that nobody knows anything about.”
To help get their point across, France said VVA members who participate try their best to give students an in-depth lesson on the history and political climate surrounding the Vietnam War.
“We use a lot of statistics, maps, locations because the kids really have no idea about anything,” France said. “There’s just so much stuff we cover, from the presidents, like how President Carter issued pardons for (people who avoided the draft) and how the youngest person killed over there was 15 and the oldest was 62. But everybody does a different thing every time we go, no one has a set thing they do.”
Most of the students are surprised by the tales they hear from the veterans, France said.
France said the group, which has a rotating cast of members, has spoken to students of all ages, from high school seniors to children in elementary school.
“It’s not just high school kids,” France said. “We go to elementary schools, too. We try to break things down on their level, even first-graders. We just play with them and show them our equipment and those little kids really seem to enjoy it.”
Although France himself did not see combat while serving during the Vietnam era, he said those in the group who did find the recognition they receive from the children rewarding.
“They had no recognition when they came home, but I think now, even doing things in the schools, they’re getting recognition for what happened,” France said. “They’re ready to go and really excited about it and they feel like they’re making an impact, and I hope we are.”
France said members of the Kingsport VVA hope to take the positive impact their work has beyond the schools by helping veterans of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan open up about their experiences.
“One of our guys made a statement that everyone who has been to war has been wounded, you may not have been physically wounded, but you have been mentally,” France said.
“So we are also trying to work with the Iraq and Afghanistan vets because we don’t want them to feel left out. They’re coming home like the Vietnam vets, not wanting to talk about anything. So hopefully we can help break that barrier.”