ZoomBy Ralph Morang email@example.com
ELIOT, Maine – Lee Petrie’s eighth-grade social studies class at Marshwood Middle School has been studying the Vietnam War using a unique resource, the diary of an Army medic.Thursday, Petrie surprised his class by introducing the author of the diary, Bill Toland, of Exeter, N.H.Students were expecting to see a film during class and were stunned to meet Toland instead. They sat in silence as he spoke to them.Toland, 73, a former Exeter fire chief, is a retired New Hampshire state fire marshal. In 1968, he was a 26-year-old Exeter Fire Department ambulance attendant and Army National Guard reservist who was called up and sent to Vietnam.He left behind his young wife and small children. “The hardest thing I had to do was leave the house,” he said, Toland trained at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, and went to Vietnam with the N.H. National Guard’s 3rd Battalion, 197th Field Artillery. After viewing a 20-minute Army film called “Why Vietnam,” they were sent off.“What the movies don’t tell you about is the heat and the smell,” he said of Vietnam. He was assigned to Thunder III, an artillery base north of Saigon. Toland showed photos that included a bullet hole in the windshield of the truck in which he was riding – the bullet had missed him by four inches.All eyes were on Toland, wearing his Army jungle fatigues, as he told the class of 100 about daily life at the base and his duties as a medic. The stories are heart-breaking: watching a soldier die before a medevac helicopter could reach him; treating a Marine from Exeter for a head wound who died minutes later from a bullet in the back. Toland showed a photograph he had taken of the Marine before he was shot.Toland’s photographs are of the mundane and the terrific. He showed Vietnamese villagers living without water or electricity and Army trucks destroyed by land mines.As his convoy passed through villages, people would beg for food. “My dad told me stories like that about World War II,” he said.The artillery base was a circular fort in the middle of nowhere. His sand-bagged medical bunker was near one of the howitzers. The concussion from firing left Toland deaf in one ear. Finding the enemy had placed mines near the base was “a morale-buster,” he said.Petrie came across Toland’s diary though a former education technician, Heather Kulikowski, who had met Toland. Petrie’s students combed through it using maps, music from the period and draft numbers. When several students decided to search for Toland through the Internet, Petrie had to distract them so as not to spoil his surprise visit.Toland said he wanted to write the diary in case he did not come back.“I wrote it not knowing it was going to amount to anything like this,” he said.Toland was asked what it was like to come home after the war. He remembered one “welcome home” well. His mailman, a World War II veteran said, “Hey, the baby killer is home.” Like many Vietnam veterans, Toland did not wear his uniform in public for a long time.Asked about the Vietnam War, Toland said, “It was kind of a waste. People didn’t care before going.”He said he worries about his grandsons going to war.Student Shaleigh Folger said of Toland’s visit, “It’s like we were there. It’s a completely different insight.”Toland left the class with one last sad story. As his unit was leaving Vietnam at the end of their tour, they rode trucks to the air base. An experienced driver did not avoid the mud puddles – one concealed a land mine and the truck blew up, killing five of Toland’s friends who were all from Manchester, N.H.As he left the school, at least half a dozen students escorted Toland to his car.