MONTVILLE, NJ - Lou Stiegelmayer said, “I had no concept of what to expect” when he spoke to Montville Lazar Middle School students at the school’s Living Lessons presentations in May. Stiegelmayer is a former marine, who joined the marines in 1966 right out of high school and was sent to Vietnam in August of 1967.
“At 18 years-old, I found myself as a squad leader leading guys into combat,” he stated. On one of those missions 22 men were wounded and six were killed. Stiegelmayer was hit that night with two hand grenades, and for this, he received one of his three Purple Hearts. He spent three months on a hospital ship and then was sent back only to be wounded two more times.
He expressed sorrow that his mother had to watch two men in dress blues come to her door with an envelope. She was sure they were coming to tell her that her son had died.
Stiegelmayer explained, “The weather was one of the most difficult obstacles in Vietnam. It is monsoon season from June through September. It rained for 20 days straight. The nights were moonless. It was pitch dark and relatively cold. I was 18 and was dealing with this. We slept in water and walked in water that was sometimes up to our chests. There were snakes of all kinds. We were covered in leeches and insect bites and plagued with malaria. The rats were the size of cats.”
Stiegelmayer brought in examples of Pepsi tin cans that the enemy used to make explosives. He said, “The explosives might not have killed anyone, but they could knock a soldier out. And the enemy was not only soldiers but also kids.”
Kids would befriend American soldiers during the day accepting candy and food, but at night, they would turn against them in an instant by helping the North Vietnamese Army. He said it was two kids who found the case of hand grenades that wounded the 22 soldiers and killed the 6.
He described that there were no boys over the ages of 10 through 12 left in the villages because they were taken by the North Vietnamese to train them to be soldiers to kill Americans.
Even though the North Vietnamese people were small, they were highly trained, very strong and very smart said Stiegelmayer.
Stiegelmayer brought in examples of C rations, an individual portion of packaged pre-cooked meals that could be eaten hot or cold, for the students to examine. He explained that cases of food would come to the soldiers, but they were heavy and had to be carried. Each individual soldier had to decide for himself how much food he wanted to bring. Their backpacks were between 60 to 70 pounds. They also had to carry their M16s and 500 rounds of ammo, along with water.
“The name of the game was to survive.” There were booby traps everywhere. He recounted one mission where 30 soldiers went in and only ten survived.
Stiegelmayer was very honest in accounting American military behavior. Soldiers would go into villages to search and destroy. Some soldiers did some unethical things, but the North Vietnamese were known to do worse said Stiegelmayer. He would not give details on the atrocities because of the sensitive age of the students, and he said he has a very difficult time talking about what happened. He would never even tell his sons exactly what he experienced until his sons became much older.
He also was brutally honest about the use of Agent Orange, a defoliant chemical and herbicide, used by the U.S. military in the Vietnam War. He explained that crop dusters would spray the jungles, and within two days the dense jungles and crops were gone. But in the process, the American troops were sprayed, and years later, this exposure caused cancer, kidney disease, birth defects and many more diseases.
The government denied compensation benefits to many soldiers throughout the years. Stiegelmayer’s health was compromised by the chemical, and he said, “We fought tooth and nail until we won my case.”
He told the students that sometimes the South Vietnamese villagers would want to thank the soldiers for their help by making them meals of raw fish heads and rice. “To them, this was great, and dogs were a delicacy,” said Stiegelmayer.
Students were allowed to examine the Pepsi tin cans, C rations, Stiegelmayer’s Purple Heart and other items that Stiegelmayer brought, giving the students the opportunity to touch and feel real artifacts of the time.
The students left knowing some facts about the Vietnam War and how war affects those involved.
According to the Living Lessons booklet, back in the states Stiegelmayer “took night classes and received his degree in business. He is a huge sports fan and coached his two sons in various sports. For four years, he was president of the Fathers Club at St. Joseph High School in Metuchen and served on many committees there. Now married for 44 years to his wife, Mary Lou, he currently owns a lighting company and enjoys playing golf and spending time with his family at the NJ shore.”
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