We all know the old adage, variously attributed to Edmund Burke, Winston Churchill and George Santayana, “Those who don’t know history are destined to repeat it.”
Jess Le Vine, a faculty member at Brookdale Community College and member of the Board of Trustees for the New Jersey Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial Foundation, is keenly aware of this lesson — and with help from a grant from the New Jersey Historical Commission, is working to make sure lessons learned from the Vietnam War will help us live more thoughtfully, and with better understanding of war’s impact, now.
Le Vine’s project will solicit and highlight personal stories from Vets and their families and friends and is being launched at a particularly relevant period. As anyone who has visited the New Jersey Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial, Museum and Educational Center can attest, the social, political and economic climates today — both nationally and internationally — are strikingly similar to prevailing circumstances during the Vietnam era.
Ken Burns, acclaimed filmmaker whose newest project with partner Lynn Novick, The Vietnam War, is scheduled to air on PBS stations in September 2017, recently drew this conclusion about the parallels between the Vietnam Era and our present day:
“Just think about it. You want to understand Wikileaks? Let’s go back to the Pentagon papers. You want to understand about meddling in foreign affairs, about political parties reaching out to foreign powers that’s right now in the news? That’s in the story of Vietnam. You want to find out about the disconnect between the generals who make the plans and the service members who do the fighting and dying? Vietnam reveals this. To understand Vietnam is to arm yourself in the best sort of way for how to deal with our present incredibly fraught moments. It couldn’t be more relevant than it is today.”
In fact, this project marks the first-ever systematic collection, compilation and presentation of important demographic and sociological data describing Vietnam veterans from New Jersey. The initial phase targets those Vets and their families who were living in Monmouth County at the time they were drafted or enlisted to serve in the Vietnam War.
Le Vine, the principal investigator, describes the overarching goal of the project to vets and their family and friends in very personal terms, “We’re trying to get a really complete picture of each person, besides what unit they were in,” says Le Vine, “…insight into who they were before their own specific war experience and what life was like when they returned home. We want to know how their tour changed them, but also the collective Monmouth County picture as well. We want to know where their draft boards (selective service) were, how many registered in each location, where they served, their average age, general interests, etc.”
Sarah Taggart, Deputy Director of the New Jersey Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial Foundation and project partner, says, “By sharing local and personal histories with the public, this project provides relevant and logical connections between local, national and international history and communities. It will demonstrate that events and times like the Vietnam War and the Vietnam Era never occur in isolation.”
Jess Le Vine has been visiting with local veterans groups and organizations, encouraging Vets as well as their family members to participate in the project and submit the short survey. “We are encouraging every Vet who lived in Monmouth County when they were deployed to participate,” says Le Vine, “but we’re also hoping family members of deceased vets will respond, or even family of vets who, themselves, feel uncomfortable answering the questions. The more information we have about these men and women, their support systems, their service, and their lives before and after their war experience, the better we’ll be able to document the impact of the war and lessons learned — lessons we absolutely need to be reminded of today.”
The project will produce searchable service stats for Monmouth County Vietnam Veterans, and, in coordination with the Monmouth County Historical Association, all information will be archived for future researchers, family members and others to retrieve, much like Revolutionary War or Civil War data.
The project also calls for mounting a temporary exhibit in both the New Jersey Vietnam Veterans’ Museum as well as the Monmouth County Historical Association headquarters in Freehold, NJ. A public lecture series, a print journal capturing individual stories, and a curriculum guide for educators are all additional deliverables included in the scope of the grant project.
If successful, Le Vine hopes to expand the project to include veterans from all 21 counties in New Jersey.
Download The Survey Here