Stories of combat,
returning back home
Vietnam vet teaches educators about war
Stories of combat,
returning back home
BY JOLENE HART
Seated in the auditorium of Wilson Elementary School in Sayreville recently was a rapt audience, listening intently to the words of Vietnam veteran Robert Hopkins of Ocean Township.
Even while raising their hands to ask questions and whispering among themselves, they were careful not to miss Hopkins’ stories.
The audience members in question were not students, but teachers — members of the Sayreville chapter of the Alpha Delta Kappa (ADK) teachers sorority who gathered to honor Veterans Day by educating themselves on the history of the Vietnam War.
ADK is an altruistic sorority of teachers that nominates women for membership based on outstanding character and contributions, according to Sandra McCormick, a member of the organization and a guidance counselor at Wilson Elementary School.
ADK’s members work at several different schools in the borough, but unite in their effort to provide support for the community in the form of scholarships, contributions to nearby hospitals, fund-raising events and donations to local organizations.
Hopkins, a friend of ADK Vice President Porter Ballard, served as an artillery officer with the U.S. Army’s 25th Infantry Division in Vietnam from November 1968 to October 1969. He received the Army Commendation Medal for Valor, the Bronze Star for Meritorious Service, and the Purple Heart.
Hopkins’ connection to the Vietnam War has remained strong in the decades after the war, most evident in his service as the first president of the New Jersey State Council of the Vietnam Veterans of America, his involvement with a grant from the Monmouth County Alcohol and Drug Abuse Board that funded training for professionals in dealing with Vietnam veterans, and his role as editor of the Forward Observer, New Jersey’s first Vietnam veterans’ newspaper.
Hopkins, descended from a long line of military service personnel, recalled stories of Sitting Bull and Red Cloud and Theodore Roosevelt and the Rough Riders that have been passed down through his family for generations.
As teachers nodded in agreement, Hopkins expressed his pride in the opportunity to serve the United States during the Vietnam War. "Like others before us, we thought it was our duty, and it was not an unpopular war at that time. Seventy percent of those who served in the war were volunteers."
Hopkins described to the group of teachers how the favor of the nation turned sharply during the Vietnam War, leaving many soldiers to be treated coldly upon their return.
"I don’t know where the flip occurred, but it did occur," said Hopkins. "It wasn’t intentional, but people were tired."
Hopkins warned that a similar turn could easily happen with the Iraq war if it lasts too long.
Returning by plane to the East Coast in 1969, a passenger seated next to Hopkins asked to be moved when he saw that Hopkins had been serving in Vietnam.
"People were getting tired of hearing of the casualties. It was seen as a bad war, so the guys who served became bad soldiers," Hopkins said of the "societal switch."
According to Hopkins, there was no time for adjustment for the returning troops. "Seventy-two hours after being shot at I was back in my living room," he said. "Six weeks later I was back at work.
"I watched Viet Cong flags being carried down the street in Freehold," Hopkins said of the country’s internal dissension.
Hopkins recalled marching in a 1984 parade for veterans in New York City with thousands of other veterans.
"There was a guy in a suit standing on the street corner, watching," Hopkins recalled. "I knew he was a vet; I saw in him what we [veterans] call the ‘thousand mile stare.’ I asked him to come march with us and he just said, ‘No. It’s too late.’"
According to Hopkins, veterans dealt with "survivor guilt" and the "Vietnam hangover," suffered by the country, but that was only the beginning.
"If you served in Vietnam, consider yourself exposed," Hopkins said, referring to the prevalence of Agent Orange, a chemical used to destroy dense tropical foliage. Type 2 diabetes, hepatitis C and apnea, as well as post-traumatic stress, addiction and suicide, have plagued veterans of the war. According to Hopkins, thousands of Vietnam veterans have committed suicide since their return home.
One teacher told Hopkins that she still had a Prisoner of War bracelet, worn after the war, and now hoped to find out if the soldier survived. Another said that her husband still wears a POW bracelet.
"Depending when you served, you have a different view of the war," Hopkins admitted.
Hopkins is now involved with a Kean University project to document the experiences of Vietnam veterans.
"The project lets us say what we want to say about the war," Hopkins said.
ADK presented Hopkins with a donation in support of the project, said Lisa Coward, co-president of ADK.
Photographs displayed on a nearby table strike almost as intensely as Hopkins’ words, showing a young Hopkins in his combat uniform surrounded by other young men.
"I was 23 at the time," said Hopkins, motioning to a photo, "but people don’t realize that the average age of soldiers over there was only 19."