For his latest book, Professor Phillip F. Napoli spent nearly a decade speaking with Vietnam veterans in an effort to paint a more complete picture of those who served.

History Professor’s Book Aims to Shatter Stereotypes of Vietnam Veterans

Dec. 2, 2013

Phillip F. Napoli has logged more than 600 hours in conversations with many of New York City’s Vietnam veterans. So if there was one thing the Brooklyn College history professor knew, it was that the oft-summoned platitudes that involve Agent Orange and post-traumatic stress disorder and the “wacky vet John Rambo,” as he describes it, hardly scratch the surface of the experiences of these men and women.

“These stereotypes are used as a way of dismissing them,” says Napoli, an assistant professor in the history department. “All of those issues are reality but they don’t define these men and women.”

So Napoli set about to help paint a more complete picture of those who served in Vietnam. His latest work, Bringing it All Back Home: An Oral History of New York City’s Vietnam Veterans, (Hill and Wang, 2013) does just that. 

The book chronicles the lives of 19 veterans like Joan Furey, a nurse who volunteered to go to Vietnam in 1969 and, according to Napoli, was “up to her elbows in blood every morning.” Later that year, the 23-year-old ended up participating in one of the best-known episodes of GI resistance, the John Turkey Movement, in which soldiers rejected their Thanksgiving dinners to protest the war.

“She clearly suffered from PTSD and came home with a significant drinking problem but she ended up turning her life around,” says Napoli, pointing out that Furey became the first director of the Center for Women Veterans at the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Anthony Wallace, a former deacon at a Cornerstone Baptist Church in Bedford-Stuyvesant, is also featured. He was badly wounded in Vietnam when his bunker took a direct hit. Two men who were with him died. Wallace suffered from survivor’s guilt when he returned but managed to pick up the pieces of his life through his faith and by finding a community of veterans to lean on, something Napoli said was key to helping veterans reintegrate into society. Wallace now volunteers at the Vietnam memorial in Washington one weekend of every month.

“Many of their lives were changed by Vietnam but these guys were not destroyed by it,” Napoli says.

Bringing it All Back Home took Napoli about two years to write and grew out of his work as the director of the college’s Veterans Oral History Project, for which he has conducted interviews with hundreds of the city’s Vietnam veterans over the last decade. For the project, he also spoke with many family members of veterans, their therapists, veterans from other wars, students, civilians, and protestors.

Napoli, who has been doing oral history work for more than 30 years, had previously been one of the chief researchers for journalist Tom Brokaw’s The Greatest Generation (Random House, 2001). He was partly motivated to write his own book by exploring what it meant in the long term to have served in the military, and gleaning lessons for the new generation coming home from Afghanistan and Iraq. He is currently on sabbatical until the fall of 2014 in order to work on a new project for which he will interview many of the estimated 25,000 post-911 veterans in New York.

“As a society if we are going to send people to war, we have to be extremely careful about what we do and how we treat these men and women,” he says.

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