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Students essays to be part of Memorial Day display
Speakers also benefited from interviews
Vietnam veteran Dennis Smalley helps Gainesville Middle School sixth-grader William Ball try on a camouflage Ghillie suit as part of Smalley’s visit to the school as one of the veterans being interviewed for a class project. - photo by Tom Reed

Dennis Smalley said he doesn't recall the number of times the Huey helicopters he served aboard were shot down or crashed during the Vietnam War.

A sergeant for the Army, he was a door gunner and paratrooper 1967 to 1968.

"There was an old adage we used; if you can walk away from it, it was a good flight," he told students at Gainesville Middle School.

His was one of several veteran interviews by students in the school's media center Wednesday and Thursday.

The classes will write essays about what they learned for a display at the Northeast Georgia History Center at Brenau University.

It will open on Memorial Day.

Students "oohed" and "aahed" over photos of the gunship helicopter Smalley displayed and asked what kind of weapon he used (an M-60 machine gun) and what it felt like to be in war.

"War is a dirty and terrible business, but sometimes they're necessary because we are a wounded planet and we have to heal those wounds," he said.

Smalley joined the Army at age 19 and departed for Vietnam during the Tet Offensive. He provided air support to ground troops, and although he was never injured, the casualty rate for crewmen was high, he said.

Asked about adjusting to life in Vietnam, Smalley said the jungle contained more dangers than just enemy forces.

"You had to be careful of the wildlife because there are critters over there that make life miserable. There were a lot of cobras," he said.

To help him through the war, Smalley said he read Psalm 91 each day, otherwise referred to as the "Warrior's Psalm." Today, he is the associate pastor at Grace Center of Hope Worship Center in Gainesville.

His hands-on account of the conflict also included a camouflage Ghillie suit, a camouflage that resembles heavy foliage, which was worn by Marine snipers in Vietnam. He draped the suit over William Ball, 12, who said he's considering joining the Marines some day.

"You'd think it would feel uncomfortable and itchy but it's not. I kind of like it," Ball said.

Another group of students heard from Francis Turner, a sergeant for the Army during World War II.

Turner served in the Army Corps of Engineers and helped build bridges for troops in Europe.

He described K-rations to the kids, which were similar to ready-to-eat meals.

"They also included four sheets of toilet paper, a little coffee and a box with four cigarettes in it," he said.

He said his family supported his decision to join the Army. His father earned a Purple Heart in World War I.

"I felt it was my duty to do so. It was either that or get drafted, so I beat them to the punch," he said.

Sixth-grader Sean Irick said he learned a lot about war by talking to Turner and the other veterans, and he appreciated their sacrifices.

"I knew the military was about service, but I didn't know about how they put their life on the line," he said. "It's made me think about joining."

The veterans said they also benefited from the visit and were happy to share their stories.

"I want the kids to see that peace means everything and it can have a price," Smalley said. "This gives them an awareness of the past that they can't find in history books."