Princeton Public Library program features personal look at Vietnam War

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Princeton Public Library program features personal look at Vietnam War

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Ashley Wright, right, is part of a family that had fought in most of the nation’s wars, and had volunteered for the Vietnam War draft.

When the lights came on inside a second-floor room at the Princeton Public Library Wednesday afternoon, a group of mostly older adults went from watching a documentary about the Vietnam War to talking about it.

More than 50 years have gone by since George Scherer, an Army veteran, served in a conflict that divided the nation.

“As you age, you see things differently. As you get more information, you see things differently,” he said after he and others wrapped up a group discussion.

The library is in the midst of showing the entire “The Vietnam War” documentary by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick and having a series o f other educational programs tied to the conflict. Two men, Ashley Wright, a Vietnam veteran, and Lew Maltby, a war protester, had met after seeing one of the episodes at the library, talked and wound up facilitating Wednesday’s discussion.

Wright, part of a family that had fought in most of the nation’s wars, had volunteered for the draft. He shared how being in the war differed for men depending on what assignments they were given.

“My experience as an artilleryman in Vietnam was a walk in the park compared to the experience of the infantrymen you’re seeing up here,” he said to a group of around 25 people. “So my view of the war and my experience is also different than others.”

Maltby, a student at the University of Pennsylvania in the 1960s, said his views on the war changed in college. He became an anti-war activist and served for a time as the leader of the Penn chapter of the Students for a Democratic Society.

“But I grew up like most of us at (that) time thinking America was the land of the free and the home of the brave,” he said. “And my dad taught me to not listen to authority but think for myself and see what I thought was right and that’s what I should do.”

Yet he was surprised to find his father was upset with his anti-war activism and threatened to cut off his college tuition if he didn’t stop.

“And I didn’t stop,” he said, “but it certainly left an impression that my father’s devotion to me was, in some level, contingent and secondary to whether I was doing what he thought I should be doing.”

Maltby joined the Army Reserves, as opposed to fleeing to Canada or going off to Vietnam.

“Was I afraid of dying? Of course I was afraid of dying,” he said. “And anybody in the anti-war movement who says that being afraid of dying themselves wasn’t in the mix someplace is not being honest with you. Did we truly believe the war was wrong? Sure we did. We were also a fraid of dying. Who wouldn’t be?”

In Wright’s case, he said he thought his father, a World War II veteran who had served in the artillery, probably believed military service would be good for his son.

“And in fact, it was,” said Wright, who went into journalism. “I had been adrift before. By the time I got out of Vietnam and out of the Army, I was no longer adrift and I knew exactly what I wanted to do.”

Other veterans in the room shared what life was like when they returned from Vietnam.

Alex Welsh, a Marine veteran who served from 1969 to 1970, recalled the “sense of being ostracized” by many young women, and would later work overseas.

“One of the reasons I did that was I just didn’t really feel welcome back in the United States â€" didn’t feel hated or despised, it was just a very, very weird feeling,” he said.

Scherer said he had visited the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington D.C. in the late 1980s to burn some 200 letters he had written from Vietnam to a friend. He also left a poncho liner, at the base of the wall, beneath the name of a friend who had been killed.

“I thought, at that time, I was putting the war behind me,” he said. “I guess I was looking for some closure.”

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