Daily Herald opinion: Remembering the Vietnam generation

Baby Boomers among us will be forgiven if they have a hard time thinking of the Vietnam era as “history.” The war ended in 1975, or 49 short years ago. In the minds of today’s high school students, that qualifies as history.

To their grandparents, it qualifies as yesterday. The conflict cut short the youth of an entire generation — much as the Second World War also forced the previous generation to grow up too quickly. In the 60s, everyone had a friend or family member serving … or protesting.

It’s unlikely then, that the teenagers currently attending Maine West High School in Des Plaines would have noticed that a plaque honoring former students who died in Vietnam had vanished. But on a tour being given to the Class of 1974 the day before their 50th reunion, one eagle-eyed alumnus noticed it was gone. A post on Facebook generated outrage, and suddenly Maine West had a kerfuffle on its hands.

Happily, Principal Eileen McMahon defused it almost as soon as it began. The plaque, she wrote on Facebook, had been moved when the library was renovated in summer 2022. It was scheduled to be resettled in the Warrior Room (named for the “Maine West Warriors”) once display cases are set up to receive that and other memorabilia.

“No disrespect to our fallen Warriors or their surviving friends and family was intended,” she wrote. The room, she added, will also house other artifacts from the school’s 65-year history, including Ronald Reagan’s campaign stop at Maine West on Oct. 31, 1980. In the Warrior Room, the items will be much more visible to the public than they were in the library.

“We are still working on the decorations and plans to create the finished look, but make no mistake, we know what these men gave for our country, and we honor them accordingly,” McMahon said. “They are a part of who we are.”

Not all of the Maine West students who died in Vietnam are represented on these plaques, but most are. A list of the lost: Lt. James Milton Albright; 1Lt. Howard John Becker Jr.; PFC Michael Steven Bryant; PFC Brian Jeffrey Canada; Maj. Ralph Laurence Carlock; WO James T. Donahue Jr.; LCpl. Pete Gerald Heckwine; PFC Thomas P. Klausing; Sgt. Leonard J. Lewandowski Jr.; Sp4 Robert Edwin Matson; PFC Steven Paul Mullineaux; PFC James Thomas Renz; PFC Patrick Carlisle Riordan; 2Lt. David William Skibbe; Sgt. Allan Robert Tyler; Cpl. Robert Stephen Utecht; PFC Donald Edward Walters Jr.; Sp4 Kenneth Wayne Wells and PFC John Corwin Yager. Courtesy of Brett Clark/District 207

Why should suburban high schools keep the memories of Vietnam and other conflicts alive for a student body increasingly distanced by years from those events?

Vietnam was a different kind of war, a defining moment in American history. Unlike the Greatest Generation, the Vietnam War — and Americans’ reaction to it — formatively changed our country and how citizens relate to their government. And unlike World War II, where the nation understood the mission of defeating Germany and Japan, a lot of citizens never really grasped the military and political objectives that Americans were dying for in Vietnam.

Mike Lake is the former commander of VFW Post 2992 in Des Plaines. The VFW was involved with the original plaque, and he is pleased to know it was always Maine West's intent to bring it back into the open.

“It can’t be ignored, or put on a shelf in a closet,” he said, referring to both the plaque and the Vietnam War. Today’s students need to learn about how the Vietnam War came about, how it was fought and who from their hometown made the ultimate sacrifice, he said. They are a part of who we are.

We agree. Moreover, Maine West and the Vietnam War kind of grew up together — when the school opened in 1959 the conflict was already raging and it would be just five short years before Americans would be sent there. Other suburban schools, built around the same time, likely had the same experience.

We see a silver lining in the misunderstanding that has propelled this aging plaque back into the public consciousness.

The soldiers from Maine West who gave the last full measure of devotion in Vietnam are again on our lips, as we once more say to their memories, “You are ours.”

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