John Ketwig never wanted to serve in the Vietnam War, nor did he ever plan to become a writer.
Yet he survived three years in Southeast Asia, and his memoir of that experience, “…and a hard rain fell: A GI’s True Story of the War in Vietnam,” remains in print 34 years after its first publication.
On Oct. 31, the Bedford County author, 71, visited Roanoke College history professor John Selby’s class on “The Vietnam War” to share his firsthand experiences and talk about his new book, “Vietnam Reconsidered: The War, the Times, and Why They Matter.”
Ketwig wrote the new book in response to questions he has received from students over years of giving talks about the war in high schools and colleges. He also wrote the book to find answers to questions of his own: “What was the war all about, and why the hell did they need me?”
He doesn’t mince words about his anti-war stance. “I am here today to tell you that Vietnam was a tragedy and a travesty,” he said. “It was wrong. It was the wrong thing to do.”
Americans still feel the effects of Vietnam in ways not often talked about. As an example, Ketwig cited statistics counting about 58,000 American military casualties in Vietnam, and shared an estimate that there have been more than 200,000 suicides by Vietnam veterans in the years since, adding that the estimate is likely lower than the real figure.
He recounted several harrowing anecdotes of his experiences driving trucks into combat zones. “To see what is left after bombing, it stays with you the rest of your life,” Ketwig said. “It tattoos your mind.” He described nightmares about his own children inspired by seeing a boy horribly burned by napalm.
He challenged the oft-repeated notion that anti-war protesters in the late 1960s and early 1970s were universally hostile to, even going so far as to spit on, soldiers returning from Vietnam. In “Vietnam Reconsidered,” he devoted a chapter titled “The Great Myth” to the topic.
Growing up, though every authority figure in his life had lived through World War II and some had served in the Korean War, those wars were almost never discussed in school or otherwise, Ketwig said.
Times have changed. In his experience, many schools today do teach about the Vietnam War. “Why is this being looked at 44 to 50 years later?” Ketwig asked the class.
“I think it’s one of the first times in American history that when our purpose for something was kind of blurred, and the more you study it, you realize it wasn’t all for the best of American ideals,” said Claudia Jacobs, a senior from North Carolina.
Several of the students in the audience had relatives who served in Vietnam. At the end of the talk, Ethan Paitsel, a freshman from Roanoke, said that his grandfather was stationed at the same base where Ketwig worked as a driver and mechanic.
Another student, Salem junior Jared Martin, asked Ketwig why he called the Vietnam War the defining event of his generation during a time when the civil rights movement and the space race also dominated headlines.
“Vietnam defined our generation because it affected everyone,” Ketwig replied. “It was the biggest issue. Everybody wanted to find a way to either win it or end it, ‘so my kid doesn’t come home in a box.’ It was everything.”
The combined History Museum of Western Virginia and O. Winston Link Museum at 101 Shenandoah Ave. N.E. in Roanoke will offer free admission Saturday and Sunday so visitors can take part in a program teaching about the lives of Native Americans and early European settlers, presented by interpreters from the Fincastle/Montgomery County Militia of Southwest Virginia. For more information, call 982-5465, email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit roanokehistory.org.