Esther Miller Bais Yaakov students learn history of Vietnam War firsthand from those who served


Sarah Sentell and Vietnam Veteran Joe Bonfilio

By Bill Motchan, Special to the Jewish Light

When Esther Miller Bais Yaakov (EMBY) High School seniors began learning about the Vietnam War, social studies teacher Bradley Durnell knew exactly how to supplement the textbook lessons. He asked eight Vietnam vets to talk to the EMBY students. On May 4, the vets visited the school and had one-on-one conversations with students, who led the discussion.

Miera Wachsstock, 18, sat opposite Mike Rohan, 80 and said, “I want to know what your job was.” Rohan answered that he was half of a two-man crew on a fighter jet. “I was a lieutenant and I sat in the back seat with a stick so I could fly the plane. I was behind a major—if you had more time in, you got to sit in the front.”

At another table, Ahuva Brown, 18, closely inspected a photo of a young Bob O’Neill next to a large machine gun. “You operated one of these?” she asked. O’Neill, 77, explained that on one occasion, his 60-mm machine gun jammed. “The guys figured out that if they could elevate the ammunition belt, they could fix it. They found a C-ration can to put under the belt and it worked perfectly.”

Across the room, Sarah Sentell, 18, asked Joe Bonfilio, a retired Air Force captain, about his Vietnam experiences. Bonfilio, 73, told her about how he had just finished serving 12 months in Vietnam and was back home in Boston waiting for his next orders.

“I was hoping for Germany or Spain, and they said ‘You’re going back to Vietnam because there’s not too many of you guys who can handle explosives and weapons,’ so I spent another year there.”

Before his Vietnam service, Bonfilio had plans to become an architect and was a sophomore in college.

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“Every year we had to fill out a deferment document and the U.S. Department of Defense would provide a one-year deferment,” he said. “You had to pay your entire tuition upfront. That November, I got a letter saying, ‘Congratulations, you’ve been drafted. You have to report to the Army Induction Center.’ I went to the registrar and asked why I got it and they said, after I submitted my paperwork, the secretary forgot to send it to the government. That’s how I ended up in the military.”

Eventually, Bonfilio became a career officer in the military, and at one point was assigned to monitor ICBM Minuteman 3 missiles—10 stories below ground—at Malmstrom AFB in Montana. These real-life stories were intended to bring the Vietnam lesson plan to life for EMBY students, said Bradley Durnell.

“It brings an understanding that history is something that is very much alive, not just something we discuss in class from a textbook, but it’s all around us on a daily basis,” Durnell said.

As Vincent N. Ohlman, a former Army radio operator, explained his role in the Vietnam War to 18-year-old Sophia Rosenblum, the EMBY Secular Studies Principal Pirchie Greenspon looked on. Ohlman held a photo of himself during his military service and Greenspon said to Rosenbloom: “He was your age.”

Rosenbloom said after the session with the veterans, she and her classmates planned to compare notes on what they heard.

“We’re going to discuss in class what we learn from the veterans and take advantage of the knowledge they shared with us from being in Vietnam,” she said.

Later, Greenspon explained the value of the exercise for the students.

“They have experience talking to Holocaust survivors, their great-grandparents, who are people they know quite well,” Greenspon said. “That’s their frame of reference and this is so much different.”

She noted that the veterans got value out of the experience, too, and they described it as a form of therapy. Rohan, the former Air Force pilot, agreed.

“I like in-person discussions and the stories that often come up,” he said. “It’s why I volunteer and talk to all kinds of people.”