Lt. Col. Mike Zak held up a North Vietnamese flag, circa 1970, and presented it to a class of students at Meadow Hill Elementary School on Tuesday.
He then pointed across the room to the U.S. flag hanging from the wall.
“That’s the flag of freedom,” he said.
Clad in a dress green Army uniform, Zak gave the students a crash course on the year’s leading into the Vietnam War, the ideology of communism, the Cold War and the premature collapse of the Soviet Union.
The events were interconnected, he said – a chapter of world history dating back to the 11th hour of the 11th day of November in 1918, the year World War I ended.
“Vietnam was a war against ideology, and the ideology was communism,” he said. “Because of that war, we hastened or sped up the fall of the Soviet Union. The wall came down and communism fell.”
But that wouldn’t happen for more than 20 years after Zak arrived in Vietnam as a young Army captain. There, he piloted a Cessna L-19/01 Bird Dog, marking enemy positions with white phosphorous rockets for military bombers.
While high-flying drones accomplish the task today, he said, Vietnam required low technology and low-flying aircraft to counter the day’s guerrilla tactics.
“It was an exciting job, and the plane took a lot of bullet holes,” he said. “I told my parents I had a guardian angel with me, which is why I got bullet holes on the plane and not in my body.”
Two of his fellow pilots left one night and never returned. They were counted among the 58,212 American troops who died in the war – a number Zak knows by heart.
The Vietnam War wasn’t unlike other American wars in its sacrifice of U.S. men and women, Zak told the students. He praised the bravery of those he served with, and those who continue to serve in the war against terrorism.
In a moment of thought, he reflected back on 1965 when the buildup of U.S. troops in Vietnam began in earnest to stop the perceived creep of communism – the antithesis of freedom, he said.
“How many of you have grandparents or uncles who served in Vietnam?” he asked, with more than half the students raising their hand. “Make sure you thank them for their service.”
From the unpopular war good things came, Zak said. He often visits Vietnam and described a country not unlike the U.S., with beachfront resorts, a robust economy and friendly people.
“We gave refuge to many Vietnamese people here in the U.S. after the war,” he said. “Today, they’re citizens of our country doing many great things.”