Jungles of Vietnam brought to GV

Veterans share experiences with students

By Peter Chhum | 1/12/14 6:47pm


Rich Jakubczak (right) and Jim VandenBosch share their stories before an audience in the Loosemore Auditorium. The event is organized by the GVSU Veterans History Project. GVL / Robert Mathews

While Hollywood gives audiences a perspective on wars through film, the only real way to experience accurate war accounts is going directly to the source: veterans. It can be promised that veterans have a unique story to tell, and Grand Valley State University is listening.

On Jan. 9, more than 50 students and community members gathered to listen to three Vietnam veterans: Ron Oakes, Rich Jakubczak and Jim VandenBosch. Organized by the GVSU Veterans History Project and the history department, the “My Year in Vietnam” series brings forth veterans to share their stories of their experiences during the Vietnam War.

VandenBosch was a medical corpsman in the Marines and shared his accounts on how fragile the bonds with one another were due to the high risk of danger. He credits his survival of the war to his mentor.

“He would teach me how to survive — such things as taking your dog tag chains and shortening them so that they were very tight around your throat to make less noise,” VandenBosch said. “He also taught me to never wear sunglasses when in the jungle because the booby traps were set by fishing line and you couldn’t see it if you were wearing them.”

Jacubzak, a retired Navy corpsman, shared his view of what made the Marines and the Navy different. “They fired M-14’s and we fired 22’s,” he said, which brought laughter from the other two panelists.

They weren’t all fond memories, though.

While sharing another story, Jacubzak was overtaken with emotion as he described accidentally executing innocent villagers. He stopped in the middle of the story and, with a deep exhale, said, “This is harder than I thought.”

While VandenBosch and Jacubzak gave insight to life on the battlefield, Ron Oakes spoke of his life in the Marines serving as a radio operator. When talking about his peers, he said they were all very young.

“Anybody over the age of 20 was considered an old man,” Oaks said. “Everyone. Your higher echelon, your colonels, majors, even captains, we were all young.”

James Smither, a history professor at GVSU, organized the series and said he viewed the panel discussions as a way to learn and show appreciation for veterans.

“I found that the one thing we can do to really support veterans is to listen to them and learn a lot from them in the process,” Smither said.

The “My Year in Vietnam” series continues later this month on Jan. 28 at the Gerald R. Ford Museum. The presentation series includes panelists that served various roles from all branches of the military. The stories range from their training to their departure, and from grim accounts from work in the field to their personal struggles. All presentations are free and open to the public.

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