Saving Vietnam veteran's experiences

by Graham Rayman

May 29, 2005

Long after the Vietnam War ended, the story of that conflict is still unfolding.

Phillip Napoli is seeing to it that the story is told, in the 90 interviews he has done with Vietnam vets from around the city as part of an oral history and book project. The journey has taken the 44-year-old Brooklyn College history professor from homes to American Legion posts to VA hospitals.

"I'm looking at the entire life trajectory, the transformations that people go through, and what the service to them has meant over the long term," he said. Napoli came to the project after assisting broadcaster Tom Brokaw on his best-selling "Greatest Generation" project, a book of oral histories about World War II. The Vietnam interviews will also be published as a book next year.

Napoli said he has found a complex tapestry of lives, which belie the stereotype of the Vietnam veteran. "There is this image of Vietnam veterans as dysfunctional in some way, but I found that a lot of them are very involved in their communities," he said. "They feel that they are obligated to give back to society."

Many of them, he found, had barely spoken about their war experiences. He recalled one executive who disclosed that he still uses the leadership lessons that he learned in forging his squad into an effective killing machine.

"They are getting older, and they don't want to be forgotten," he said. "They are dying, moving to retirement communities. Talking is very important right now."

Napoli was also struck by the fact that many of the veterans were brought up in tough city neighborhoods, which he says prepared them for what they would experience in Vietnam.

"It was a blue-collar war," he said. "I heard stories about street gangs, drugs, trouble in school. You had to know how to survive. I had one guy tell me, 'I saw my first dead body at 11.' And when they came back, a lot of them became police officers, transit workers, or went into construction."