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Vietnam veteran Philip Burgess reads poetry and tells stories to Hellgate High School students and community members in the school's auditorium Wednesday morning. Burgess was one of several guests invited to speak about personal war experiences during the all-day event at the school.
Photo by GRETA MARTINSON/Missoulian

Missoula veterans share experiences, insight with Hellgate students

By JANE RIDER of the Missoulian

Several Missoula veterans Wednesday shared a few words of wisdom with a crowded auditorium of Hellgate High School students, some who may be contemplating the potentially life-changing decision of whether to enlist in the military:

Find out who you are.

Know thyself.

Be true to yourself.

Trust in yourself.

At the invitation of one of Hellgate's English teachers, Greg Lenihan, hundreds of students listened throughout the day to presentations by veterans who shared their war and military service experiences and fielded questions from curious teens.

None of the speakers talked politics, nor did any attempt to sway students to enlist or not enlist. Rather, they spoke - at times with heartfelt emotion - about what goes into making such a personal choice and how their own decision to serve affected their own lives.

For poet, storyteller and Vietnam veteran Philip Burgess, a native of eastern Montana, the decision to sign up for Vietnam was tied to his roots. He was raised on a ranch, in a small community.

"You helped one another out, and you didn't let anyone else do your dirty work," Burgess said.

When he talked about Vietnam, Burgess prefaced his remarks by asking listeners to recall the parable of the blind men and the elephant. Each man touches a different part of the elephant and gives a different description of what an elephant is.

Burgess, who spoke most of the morning, often uses poetry to describe his war experience, including the more traumatic aspects of it, which he knows are painful for some to hear.

"It is difficult. But the struggle is to tell the truth about my part of the elephant," he said. "It's all I have to give."

Vietnam was mostly a rural country, known as the bread basket of Southeast Asia and populated by many Buddhists who were conservative in their dress and how they conducted themselves in society, he said. During the war, the American military destroyed many of the rural, agricultural villages and pushed the peasants into an urban ghetto around the city so it could exercise greater control over the population, he said.

Without their family farms to provide daily sustenance, many of these modest young girls and women became prostitutes so their families could survive. Burgess recalled the first time he realized this.

"I was about 23," he said.

Burgess isn't anti-war, he said, but he wants people to recognize the realities of war when they consider enlisting. It breaks his heart when he hears people oversimplify it or talk about war as "fun" or "something to do," in a lighthearted way.

"Do you ever regret going over there?" one student asked.

To answer that, you must learn what it means to be true to yourself, he said. Burgess, who counseled veterans from 1980 to 1993, has known people who regretted going and who regretted not going.

"Be true to yourself; that's the most important thing. Figure out what that means for you and do that," he said. "Know at least why you are there. I believe I was true to myself, but boy, that's barely."

Steve Gustason, a Washington Middle School art teacher and Vietnam War veteran, used a slide show to help convey to students what it was like to serve as captain on an attack/assault patrol boat, meandering up and down small rivers through the Vietnamese jungle.

He was 21, the eldest aboard.

He also talked about coming home. The unfriendly reception he received prompted him to shut down all emotions and refrain from discussing his experiences until about 28 years later, when it began to resurface in his artwork.

He went to Washington D.C. three times with the aim of visiting the Vietnam Veterans' Memorial, but he just couldn't do it.

"I knew what I would find there," he said.

Years later, he would successfully complete that journey.

Gustason doesn't regret that he volunteered. He acknowledged that at the time he didn't fully understand the ramifications of his decision and still has trouble showing sensitivity to this day.

"But we took on the responsibility and just did the best we could," he said.

During the afternoon, a panel of nine Missoula veterans gathered with a full auditorium of students for about an hour. The panel included Burgess and Gustason, as well as John Garrity, a U.S. Army veteran of the Vietnam War; Greg Burham, a former Navy SEAL, Vietnam veteran and trauma counselor of veterans; Kermit Edmonds, a former Hellgate teacher, historian and veteran of the Gulf and Korean wars; and Robin Titus, a Hellgate High School graduate who spent 13 years on active duty and later became a U.S. Army reservist who served during the first Gulf War and more recently in Iraq.

Also part of the panel were Milo McLeod, a U.S. Forest Service archaeologist and Vietnam and Gulf War veteran; Col. Joel Cusker, a national guardsman just back from serving with the U.S. Army in Afghanistan; and Heather Ierardi, soon to be promoted to lieutenant colonel in the Army, and chairwoman of the University of Montana's department of military science.

Cusker spoke of the soldiers serving in Afghanistan now and of how proud he is of their abilities.

"I was inspired daily," he said.

One day they would fight a small battle or skirmish. The next day, they would be at an orphanage giving huge hugs to kids without parents, he said.

He described the soldiers as ambassadors for the free world, making the right decisions. He stressed that everyone who lives and enjoys a free society needs to volunteer to serve - if not in the military, through some other way.

"Everybody in a free society owes that society service some way," he said.

Ierardi, who served 21 years of active duty, noted the common thread among all who sat on stage Wednesday.

"The thing we all have in common is our service to our nation," she said. Her decision to serve was a formative event in her life, she said.

"Their service provides us with a safe place to have these discussions," Burham said.

Whether a person supports or disagrees with war, Burham stressed that people need to realize they can have these conversations because someone was willing to step forward and give of themselves.

"We do live in a dangerous world and we do need people up on the wall with guns," he said.

Another part of reality is that killing other people, which is part of the job, is a horrific thing, and coming back from war and trying to return to "normal" life can be difficult.

Garrity told students they are personally responsible for everything they do in their life. Their choices matter, he said.

"Understand you make a personal choice and you have to live with that," he said.

The real test for a free society is being able to listen and discuss such important issues with an open mind and a willingness to listen to the opinions of others, Edmonds said.

Garrity agreed.

"If you can't listen to the person with the opposing viewpoint, with respect and openness, what do you think America is about?" he said.

Reporter Jane Rider can be reached at 523-5298 or at

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