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updated: 4/22/2014 9:03 PM

School board head on Vietnam: 'I still can't believe it'

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  • District 214 Board President Bill Dussling tells Prospect High students what it was like to be a helicopter pilot during the Vietnam War. Dussling shared his experiences Tuesday.

       District 214 Board President Bill Dussling tells Prospect High students what it was like to be a helicopter pilot during the Vietnam War. Dussling shared his experiences Tuesday.
    Bob Chwedyk | Staff Photographer

 
 

It has been more than 45 years since Bill Dussling served in Vietnam, but talking about his time as a helicopter pilot in the Army still brings up new memories and emotions for the Arlington Heights resident and Northwest Suburban High School District 214 board president.

Dussling shared stories from his service with Prospect High School students on Tuesday morning as part of their unit studying the war.

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"I thought about what I did that I was proud of and what I did that I wasn't proud of," he said in preparation for the talk.

Dussling grew up in small town in Wisconsin before joining the Army and going to flight school in the mid-1960s.

"I'd never been in an airplane in my life, and the first five times I was in one, I jumped out with a parachute," Dussling said.

He and his wife were stationed in Germany before he was sent to Vietnam in 1967.

Dussling described dangerous flights, nighttime landings under enemy fire and the fear he and his fellow soldiers felt at the time.

"When I look back on it I still can't believe it," he said. "You try to keep the fear out of your mind." Students asked him about how he dealt with that fear.

"It was a fear that you would let someone down in your unit," he said. "There was a fear that you would be too fearful to do this and then once you give into that fear, you would give into it again and again. So you just did what you had to do."

Dussling said he did not suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder after his time at war, but he wasn't immune from a few nightmares once back home.

"You had friends, you lost friends," Dussling said. "You were sad for your friends, but in the back of your mind you were glad it wasn't you."

What Dussling wasn't so aware of was the mounting opposition to the war back home. After his tour in Vietnam, Dussling said, his flight back to America landed at night to avoid protesters, and there were none of the parades that are common for returning veterans today.

"I got terrible looks when I got to San Francisco," Dussling said. "That's when it started to dawn on me that I'd been doing something that wasn't very popular back home." After the war, Dussling moved on with his life and put his service behind him. He didn't even realize he still had his old Army uniforms and flight jackets -- which he showed off to the students on Tuesday -- until he was cleaning out closets after his wife died last year.

Dussling got back in touch with his military roots in 2012 when he was asked to march in the Arlington Heights Memorial Day Parade.

"It was an amazing day. Everyone was saying, 'Welcome home,' and I spent much of it wiping my eyes," Dussling said. "I couldn't believe what it meant to me."

Prospect English teacher Jason Block said he hoped Dussling's talk helped students understand the Vietnam War on a more personal level.

"It's a great experience for the kids to read the words on the page, but then to be able to hear it from someone who saw it through their own eyes," Block said. "We like to bring in living history and have someone who lived through this era explain it."

Students on Tuesday said they were inspired by Dussling's stories.

"He's amazing. It's great to hear him talk about it so openly," said Alyssa Gnech, 16. Gnech is a member of Prospect High Schools' Navy Junior Reserve Officers Training Corps program and hopes to become a nurse in the Navy.

"It's really interesting to hear how soldiers felt coming home and how people treated them when they gave so much," she said.

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