Al Krause was 24 when he was drafted into the U.S. Army to serve in the Vietnam War. It was July of 1969, and by that time, Krause was a college graduate with a psychology degree and living in Washington, D.C., a hotbed of the antiwar movement. He remembered all the stories coming out of the Washington Post about the war and witnessing the tide of public opinion changing, especially after news of the Tet Offensive, one of the bloodiest battles, came out.
The Tet Offensive took place in 1968 and was seen as a “military failure for America’s enemy,” claiming the lives of over 60,000 troops, wrote journalist John Woodrow Cox in 2018 for the Post commemorating the event’s 50th anniversary. It was also considered a pivotal moment in the war.
“That’s what I try to tell people,” said Krause, now 75 and a lifelong resident of Oak Park. “When you look back and put it in perspective, all these things happen gradually. It’s not like everybody was against the war.”
“People’s attitudes changed as the information changed,” Krause said, adding he came home from Vietnam in July of 1971, a month after the Pentagon Papers were leaked.
For over a decade, Krause has shared the stories around his service, and now, he is one of five local veterans featured in a school project. Liam O’Connor and Charlie Newman, two eighth graders at Percy Julian Middle School, 416 S. Ridgeland Ave., based their community service project on talking to veterans such as Krause and listening to their experiences. The interviews – which are now online – are meant to serve as a historical record.
O’Connor, 13, and Newman, 14, said they were inspired to do the project after Krause came to their class and spoke about his deployment in Vietnam. The teens said they didn’t know much about the Vietnam War and wanted to ask Krause more questions. They wanted to know what Krause was like as a young man. They asked him about where he grew up, what he studied in school and what his life was like before the army and after he returned from the war.
During his interview, Krause told O’Connor and Newman how tough it was for him to slip into his old life after Vietnam. To this day, Krause can still recall the couple who passed by him, while he was sitting in an airport in California, waiting for a connecting flight to get back home.
“They looked at me, and they said, ‘You just come back from Vietnam?’ And I said, ‘yes,’” said Krause, the conversation forever sealed in his memories. “They said, ‘Well, it’s too bad you didn’t lose an arm or got your leg blown off for all the terrible things you did over there.’ And then, they just kept on walking. That was my official welcome home.”
The other men who spoke to O’Connor and Newman had similar experiences. Some of them said they were spat on, while others were called names such as “baby killers.”
“People didn’t understand that I didn’t choose to go,” said Thomas Redich during the interview. Redich, like Krause, was drafted into the army. “We were really looked down upon, and we were losing the war.”
Because of the way Vietnam War veterans were perceived, Krause kept his service a secret. No one outside his family or close friends knew about it. Following the war, Krause said he didn’t look for any veterans organizations, nor did he want to be part of them. He was “against the war” and “just wanted to be left alone.”
“A lot of people I worked with for like 20 or 30 years never knew I was in Vietnam,” he said. “It’s just something you never talked about. I never interjected it into any conversation, and if I didn’t raise it, there is no way anybody would ever know I was a veteran.”
Krause said he only began talking about Vietnam when he reunited with a platoon mate in 2011, “and that was like some 40 years later.”
For O’Conner and Newman, those personal anecdotes hold meaning. O’Connor and Newman said they met the veterans on Zoom, and some shared a handful of combat photos.
“Those stories are pretty interesting,” Newman said, noting some veterans opened up about how fighting in the war felt like being trapped in a time capsule. When they got back to the states, they often felt stuck, realizing the world quickly moved on without them. Their home looked like a “completely different country,” totally unrecognizable, Newman said.
O’Connor added that he hoped people who see their project just read the veterans’ stories. There’s a lesson in empathy and compassion wrapped up in every thought and tiny detail.
As Krause thought more about that word – empathy – he offered up his own definition. He said empathy is about taking a moment to walk in someone else’s shoes.
“One thing you really learn by being drafted and being in the military, even in a time of war, is you are put together with people from all walks of life, from all over the country, from different classes and religions and backgrounds and educations,” he said. “You really meet all Americans, whereas most people grow up and never do anything other than associate with people who are just like them.”
To view O’Connor and Newman’s project, visit https://sites.google.com/op97.org/vietnam/home.