Lindsey Bier, a graduate student in the College of Communication and Information at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, wasn't even born when the Vietnam War was underway.
Yet Bier has developed a keen interest in the war and what U.S. soldiers experienced—while they were in Vietnam, when they returned and now that they are being commended for their service.
What started as a simple assignment for a research methods class has taken on a life of its own. Bier has interviewed more than a dozen Vietnam veterans so far and plans to keep going.
Bier recently presented findings from her veteran interviews at the College of Communication and Information Research Symposium. She hopes to land her research in an academic journal and may use it as part of her dissertation.
During lengthy discussions with Vietnam veterans, Bier learned that many came home feeling isolated and ostracized from society. Many have had trouble talking to outsiders about their war experiences but have found emotional support talking to each other. As cathartic as it's been to finally be commended—rather than condemned—for their service, many veterans still suffer survivor's guilt.
Bier's work is timely. This spring marks two key anniversaries of the war: the 50th anniversary of the first troops on the ground in Vietnam and the 40th anniversary of the fall of Saigon.
Bier's interest in Vietnam began when she was working on master's degrees in communications and history at Northern Illinois University. Knowing little about the war, she was fascinated with a documentary about Vietnam she viewed during a class.
In 2010, while teaching in Nashville, she received a grant from the National Consortium for Teaching about Asia to travel to Vietnam with professors from Columbia and Harvard universities.
Though she'd been to Japan, the Philippines, China, Hong Kong and Thailand, Bier's Asian travels had never taken her to Vietnam.
"It might have been the next country on my bucket list," she said. "When I went, something in my heart took a special interest."
She recalls visiting the War Remnants Museum in Saigon, which tells the story of the war from the Vietnamese perspective.
"It told a different side of the war than I'd ever heard before," she said. "I remember walking through there thinking I need to know more."
Three years later, Bier returned to Vietnam on her own to immerse herself in the culture and get to know the people. She stayed in a low-budget hotel, traveled around the country by bus and motorbike, and visited with the family of a Vietnamese friend she'd made in Nashville. They took her to restaurants and shops frequented by the locals. She hung out with a group of Vietnamese college students.
When she returned home, Bier applied to UT to pursue her doctorate in international and intercultural communications.
Bier attended Vietnam Veterans of America chapter meetings in Knoxville and talked to state representatives in Nashville. At the invitation of some Nashville veterans, she flew to Washington, D.C., to visit the Vietnam Veterans of America headquarters, do some initial interviews and attend a congressional hearing.
"From the start, the reaction I had from veterans was overwhelming," she said. Once word spread, veterans began calling her, volunteering to share their stories. They are still calling.
"These were men who had gone through this journey of identity and development and were finally at a point in their life where they could talk about it," she said.
She's heard veterans' stories of returning to Vietnam, sometimes to do humanitarian missions. She's learned about efforts to organize meetings between American veterans and Vietnamese families so information can be shared and war artifacts returned.
"For some veterans, it's a process of reconciliation," she said. "The problem is that Vietnam veterans are aging. Some are unable to make these kinds of trips."
Bier said the interviews have been more difficult than she anticipated. Some of the veterans get emotional as they share their stories.
"They have a lot of survivor's guilt and carry a lot of weight for the way they were treated after the war. One man said, 'When people ask me when I came home from Vietnam, I tell them I come home every night.'"
Bier has heard from veterans who used to be afraid to tell people they fought in Vietnam. For years, they didn't dare put it on their job applications. Some have told her about ongoing flashbacks. One man said he panics every time hears a helicopter flying overhead.
Bier said she's received emails from soldiers thanking her for listening to their stories.
"It's been personally rewarding to do a scholarly study where you feel like you're resonating with people," she said.