Kansas City, April 25, 2019: The connection between a Vietnam War veteran who writes poetry in Kansas and a refugee learning English literacy at East High School is stronger than one might at first imagine.
Writer, physician and U.S. Army veteran H.C. Palmer demonstrated the power of storytelling to bind humans closer together and build peace during a visit with students in Diane Mora’s literacy classes on Thursday, April 25 at East HS. Dr. Palmer shared stories about his experiences serving in the Vietnam War. The war and his experiences afterward became the basis of his book of prose-poetry, Feet of the Messenger.
“I was opposed to the war, but I went because I wanted to help people,” he said. “That war should never have been started in the first place.”
Ms. Mora’s class is comprised of many young people who come from refugee families and who have experienced violence or the threat of violence. She leads her students to practice storytelling and writing in order to help other people understand their experiences and background.
Dr. Palmer’s visit was in connection with one of the novels Mora’s students are reading, A Million Shades of Gray. Although the book is fiction, it is set in 1972-1973 as American troops were leaving. The book is about the life of a young Vietnamese boy named Y’Tin who gets separated from his family after North Vietnamese soldiers invade his village in South Vietnam, and his struggle for survival and eventual reuniting with his family.
“My students had many, many questions about the Vietnam war, communism, and American involvement that I did not feel knowledgeable to explain,” Ms. Mora said. “H.C. is a dear friend and graciously agreed to speak with my students.”
During his classroom visit, Dr. Palmer talked about serving as an Army doctor from 1966 to 1967 in the central highlands region of South Vietnam, where he developed close bonds with the native allied people known as Montagnards. Dr. Palmer became friends with a young South Vietnamese man who was eventually captured by North Vietnamese forces and faced persecution similar to the protagonist in A Million Shades of Gray.
“He spent 10 years in solitary confinement,” Dr. Palmer told the stunned students. “They only let him out for a few hours during the day and forced him to cultivate rice.”
Ms. Mora encouraged the students to compare their own experiences with those of Dr. Palmer and to find commonalities and links. Slowly, hesitantly, a few of the students spoke about some of the challenges they had faced in their lives, including displacement and murder.
“Your experiences in all the places you have lived will make you better citizens and will help make this a better nation,” Dr. Palmer said. “When you grow up, we need you to vote and to help keep this nation at peace.”
After his service in the Army, Palmer started writing fiction and poetry while also practicing medicine and working for a time as a cattle rancher in Kansas. He launched a writing group for veterans at the Writers Place in Kansas City, MO.
Diane Mora was recently named the 2019 Kanas City Public Schools Teacher of the Year.