The Story of an Essay

Wick Sloane shares the tale of a student and of Tim O’Brien, from Vietnam -- North and South -- to Bunker Hill, and on to Mount Holyoke.
June 25, 2010

War is with us in community college. Students from Eritrea. Ethiopia. Lebanon. The Sudan. Somalia. The drug wars in Colombia. The Congo. Afghanistan. Iraq. Bunker Hill Community College this semester had 388 U.S. military veterans. The unofficial counts I’ve seen make that the most of any institution in Massachusetts – including the universities and all their graduate schools. BHCC Veterans of all Nations is the name of the student organization. All who have lived through war may join, and members include students from every African conflict, all sides in the Middle East and the Colombian drug wars.

One afternoon in March, I was visiting a seminar pulled together this semester to address the many needs of these men and women. That afternoon, we were taking an inventory of what was missing so far in the college’s offerings for them, services and courses. Algebra review. More about transferring to four-year colleges. More help with Veterans Affairs’ red tape. Careers beyond law enforcement and corrections.

"Do you think Tim O’Brien would come visit?” one student asked. The class had read a few chapters from The Things They Carried, by the Vietnam veteran/author.

I’d try, I said. This was on a Wednesday. I explained that such authors usually had complex schedules. A visit probably couldn’t happen this semester. Then, at home that evening, my e-mail inbox had an announcement from the Harvard Book Store. Tim O’Brien was coming in three weeks on the 20th anniversary tour of The Things They Carried. I set off smiling, dialing, Googling, e-mailing. By Sunday, O’Brien had agreed, gladly, to visit the BHCC veterans while in town.


The Devil's Workshop
Highly Selective
Veterans' Day Survey

Institution Current Undergraduate Veteran Enrollment
Yale 0
Princeton 0
Williams 0
Mount Holyoke 3
Smith 3
Harvard 4
Dartmouth 16
Stanford 30
Bunker Hill Community College 388

With 388 veterans eager to see an author of so many books revered by faculty and students anyway, the scene at the reading was a mob. I heard that a Vietnamese student had spoken with O'Brien afterward and that she and O'Brien had ended up embracing, both in tears. I tracked down the student. She didn't have enough money to buy one of O'Brien's books, I learned. Tim O'Brien sent a copy, signed to her.

In the meantime, Mount Holyoke College put this student on the waiting list. I suggested that she write up her experience with O'Brien and that we send that to Mount Holyoke, to keep the persistence on. Mount Holyoke did accept the student. Her essay is below (reprinted with her permission). All I'll say as a teaser is that her grandfather, who recently died, was a Viet Cong general.


Reflection by Tam Nguyen May 10, 2010

The author Tim O’Brien came to Bunker Hill on March 25th for an event hosted by the Veterans Club. The event drew so many people that the A Lounge, where it took place, became overcrowded. People were standing wherever they could find a spot -- at tables, near the podium, and they even filled the hallway leading to the lounge. Despite the mass of people, the audience was silent. As I came into the room, I was drawn into an invisible circle that trapped me, and the force drawing the audience and me in was Tim O’Brien. He was casually dressed in jeans, a T-shirt, and his favorite baseball cap. He spoke slowly without too much volume. Every word he uttered was clear, concise, factual, and devoid of excess emotion. Each word, however, trapped the audience in an emotion, and besides me, I saw a few others shedding tears from his presentation.

I joined the audience in the middle of the event, after finishing up at work. When I came, O’Brien was discussing “The Man I Killed,” one of the most famous stories in his novel The Things They Carried. “The Man I Killed” describes O’Brien’s reaction when he looked at the dead body of an enemy he just killed. O’Brien looked at the man’s wounds and imagined different stories about him. He was a young boy with a typical life who wished every day that the Americans would leave, so he would not have to join the war. The story, at every moment it was discussed, evoked many personal feelings and memories from me.

It’s commonly said that war distorts all the values of humanity. War only allows action, which is that a man kills another man, so he will not be killed himself. But, to learn this deconstruction of humanity from a soldier who was put in a situation where it was either kill or be killed, brings the cruelty of war to a new dimension. This extreme situation pushes a human into a dead-end; it traps him or her in a corner where the only choice is either to give up on conscience, or to die. How come this type of situation dominates war, when people all across the world are taught not to kill? We understand that when a soldier kills another human, he has a good reason to do so: he is trying to protect himself and survive.

However, war causes combatants to lose sight of the value of humanity. The act of killing another human crosses a line which devalues the life of another human being. Once the line is crossed, what the soldiers see and feel becomes the hidden part of war that only a soldier, not an outsider, can tell. And I think the most of this hidden part has been covered in the darkness of war trauma, which Vietnamese and American soldiers all experienced. At least, that is what I found out from my family members and friends.

My family has many members who were devoted to the war. They fought and killed to survive and contribute to a Vietnamese victory. They were honored and received many medals and rewards which they should be proud of. Yet, besides their accomplishments, I have never heard a specific war story vividly describing a battle.

For example, my uncle often used words like “we fought,” “we won,” and “we lost.” He never told stories about what actually happened: who he met, how he fought, or what he thought about the war. In fact, my uncle and the millions of participants, real people, are hidden behind characters. There is a key emotion that is always missing from history texts, novels, and movies, seemingly because no one really knows the truth or they just never tell. I wanted to get the answer from my uncle, but he usually stayed quiet and immersed himself in deep thought whenever I asked him about the battles he participated in. He would never tell me anything, and I could feel that the war created a secret circle around him which would haunt him for the rest of his life.

Another person that the war will bother for eternity is my friend Arthur. He is an American Vietnam veteran, who is devoted to obtaining an education and helping his fellow veterans. After leaving the war, he suffered for many years. In spite of the trauma plaguing Arthur, he fights the pain with optimism, which has gotten him through all his days.

One day, I asked him about his time in Vietnam. He smiled and joked about the “lousy” food he ate and the deep forests he had been through. But just like my uncle, he would not talk about the enemies he faced and how he fought. Again, the war remains hidden! How amazing it is that two individuals from two opposite cultures, who fought on opposing sides in a horrible war, share the same feelings?

Throughout the event, these experiences and connections were running through my head, and the stories were capturing me in the invisible circle. I wondered why, when Tim O’Brien was speaking about his own experiences, I couldn’t get away from the similarities to my own experiences. The presentation came to an end, and I decided to stay afterward. I joined the line, which was meant for Tim O’Brien to sign his books, even though I didn’t have one of his books and couldn’t buy one, either. I just thought that I had to talk to him.

While I was waiting in line, memories again encircled me, and many thoughts came into my mind. I kept thinking about my grandfather who passed away. He was a General in the American War, and if all the soldiers I know keep the war hidden, my grandfather -- who had more war stories than anyone in my family -- also had more secrets as well. Then my mind wandered to my high school literature teacher who lost her whole family in the war, and was disabled by a bomb in 1972. I also recalled a taxi driver whom I met last year, who was laughing when he told me that the Vietnam War cost him his two brothers. And right before I got to Tim O’Brien, I thought about my friend Arthur, who came back with a hidden part of his life which he barely shares with others. I wanted to tell Tim O’Brien all I knew and to express to him all my emotions. But, once I came up to him all I could say was my name and that with all that I have heard, we, both Vietnamese and Americans, share the same feelings. The moment was unforgettable. We hugged each other, and just like the shared emotions, we both cried.

I was drawn to Tim O’Brien by an invisible circle of war experiences and memories, probably because I somehow felt its existence by my own experiences and memories. He was the first one to open up and share such intensive stories of the war, and gave me the emotions that I have been searching for. I cried and cried as I felt connected to O’Brien and the soldiers on both sides. But above all, it was the greater understanding of my uncle, my grandfather and Arthur that I appreciated the most. We know that nothing can be changed about the war. Time can never be turned back. There are wounds to be healed and others that won’t disappear. However, we move on and find peace of mind by knowing that we at least share the same feelings with someone, somewhere.


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