Edinboro educated veteran talks Vietnam

Category:  News
Wednesday, October 11th, 2017 at 1:14 PM

Bob Matthews attended Edinboro University in the 1960s. The summer upon graduating, he was married and drafted to fight in the war against communism. After six months of basic training and advanced individual training, a day came that Matthews remembers as if it was yesterday.

He said: “The staff sergeant walks in — ‘Matthews, front and center.’ I go up, he handed me a piece of paper...he said, ‘You’re going to Pittsburgh, you have 12 days — get your affairs in order — you’re going to Vietnam.’”

Out of the 45 men in his class, only five were called upon, which Matthews playfully referred to as “luck-o-the-draw.” He was 21 years old when he was deployed to Pleiku, Vietnam, spending all but one week in 1967 stationed in a warzone with strangers.

Pleiku was the hub for the military supply logistics corridor extending westward along Highway 19 from the port Quy Nhơn on the coast. Also, its location on a plateau made it “the main center of defense of the entire highland region of the Republic of Vietnam.”

Matthews’ military occupational specialty was artillery battery.

Matthews handed the students four things when they stepped into Edinboro University history, politics, language and cultures professor Dr. Leo Gruber’s “History of Vietnam” class: a business card with his contact information, a bracelet, a sticker and a P38 can opener.

The business card is for The North Carolina Vietnam Veterans, Inc. (NCVVI) and its education arm, The Bridge Back Foundation. With the help of the NCVVI, Matthews created a course called, “The Lessons of Vietnam” (LOV), which involves veterans from the community coming to speak to students as guest speakers in classrooms. LOV has expanded toapproximately 700 schools nationwide.

Additionally, the foundation helps bring veterans back to Vietnam to visit and share their stories across the country, all while helping local Vietnamese. According to their website, with local community support, NCVVI was able to present equipment to the students of the Quang Tri Providence School for the Blind, helping provide educational and entertainment experiences.

The NCVVI purchased over 40 bikes for the Phu Loc, Nuoc Ngot orphanage. The NCVVI also presented medical equipment, school supplies and toys. The veterans interacted with the children and the nuns of the orphanage and raised $15,000 for a playground. NCVVI returned again to Dong Ha, Vietnam and put in a playground for 140 children with autism, hearing impairments and poverty issues.

The sticker he gave the students reads, “Still They Wait,” and is meant to bring awareness to the now 1,641 personnel listed by the Department of Defense as missing and unaccounted for from the Vietnam War.

The bracelet denotes the same message for Prisoners of War and reads, “Until They All Come Home.” Matthews stressed that students wear it as a conversation starter for a subject that is rarely broached.

The last item Matthews gave the students was a P38 can opener, which he didn’t address. Most people who are familiar with them from the millennial generation will stress how difficult they are to use.

After his presentation, Matthews opened the floor up for questions. After a few questions, the students learned a lot of things:

There were native Vietnamese he trusted during that time —but he was never relaxed.

There was a saying amongst the troops of “we own the day, they own the night,” meaning daylight hours were generally safe for American and South Vietnamese troops, but all safety was void when the sun went down.

Some men lost their way — coping with the war using drugs or prostitution — while others deserted.

The soldiers talked about death all the time, so as to not forget those who died.

Ten thousand women fought in Vietnam — while spouses and parents fought with their imaginations at home. There was more.

However, Matthews’ story continued after the war. His year fighting abroad was undoubtedly the catalyst for the life he would eventually lead as an educator, but the hardest part of the war wasn’t the war at all, he said. It was coming home.

Matthews said, “You slowly had to come to terms with the fact that Vietnam would be part of your life, all of your life.” Because there was no counseling for veterans at the time, you had to do that alone, he explained.

He continued, stating how in Vietnam the job was to accomplish your mission, do your duty and stay alive for 365 days. He said that is not simple by any means, but surprisingly, it was more practicable than coming home to a country that accepted you and your postwar mindset at that time.

“I found coming home difficult. It wasn’t defiance, it was simply — no one knew how to talk to you — there was no counseling.”

While pointing to his head, he said, “The war was here.”

Matthews said he is luckier than most in that he had a supportive family and wife, but it was still difficult. With the creation of the Bridge Back Foundation and the LOV course, that void of silence is finally being filled with the voices that were once unheard. All willing and ready, “to teach a nation.”

Peter Brady can be reached at eupnews.spectator@gmail.com. 

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