Kenneth McElreath knew his life was going to change forever as soon as he stepped into the bus heading to Fort Benning near Columbus.
He was 20 years old when he was drafted to fight in Vietnam. He served in the Army for three years and three days.
McElreath and three other veterans spoke Friday afternoon to eighth-grade students at East Hall High School about their experiences in the military.
Dana Farr, eighth-grade Georgia studies teacher, organized the discussion with the help of the Northeast Georgia History Center. Farr said the school wanted to take the time to honor the men and women who have served the nation in time for Veterans Day.
She said she thought the students needed to hear the veterans’ stories in order to help preserve the past.
“The (veterans) lived history, and as a history teacher, I think it’s important that kids understand history is fading from them and they need to hear the stories before they fade away,” Farr said.
All of the servicemen shared their unique experiences in the military, explaining how soldiers communicate and share vital information, the differences in dress and the recognition they received for their service.
McElreath shared his combat experience with the students, detailing the events that occurred in the three-day battle of the la Drang Valley in Vietnam on Nov. 14, 1965.
“War is not pretty,” he told the students. “A lot of people don’t survive.”
He told the students about how he’s had to live with the horrors of those three days every day since.
“He didn’t try to sugarcoat it or anything. I respect him for that. I know it must have been hard,” eighth-grader Verenice Botello said.
Stephanie Contreras said hearing his story made the reality of war and the sacrifices of the many men and women in the armed forces all the more personal for her.
“I always have had a lot of respect for soldiers but that just made my respect grow more,” she said. “After the events he described it changed my point of view. It gave me more of an understanding about how things really happen. It makes it more realistic.”
But it wasn’t the harshness of battle that struck the students the most, it was how the Vietnam War veterans received an unwelcome reception once they returned home.
“To hear someone go through all of that and then come back and have U.S. citizens say mean things to him, it was a lot to handle,” Botello said.
“After everything that happened to him, for him to come back and have nobody be grateful, that was kind of harsh,” Contreras added.
Farr said she thought the students learned some necessary life lessons from listening and asking questions of the veterans.
“I think for some of our kids, because of technology, they’re kind of detached from war and what war really means.” Farr said.
“When they play video games and see all these things they get a little desensitized to it. So to hear someone like McElreath talk about what war is really like and how he still wakes up at night and is scared and upset about this. ... I think that changed their perspectives some.”