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NDSU students study Vietnam era, impact on veterans

The lasting effects of the turbulent Vietnam War years are the focus of new research conducted by two NDSU undergraduate students. Their research recently gained them a regional audience through a veterans program broadcast on WDAY-AM radio.

The students are Rachel Petersen, a junior double majoring in management and strategic communication from St. Cloud, Minnesota, and Amanda Krupich, a junior majoring in strategic communication from West Fargo.

Petersen and Krupich conducted the research during their Communication Research and Analysis course, taught by Charles Okigbo, professor of communication. One course goal is to create a publishable communication research paper and disseminate it to appropriate outlets. 

“I studied positive and negative portrayals of Vietnam veterans throughout the period, analyzing popular culture products and artifacts such as film, printed propaganda and music that represents both pro- and anti-Vietnam War servicemember sentiments,” Petersen explained. “It has been intriguing to follow popular culture product trends that reflect and reinforce pervasive popular culture sentiments.”

For example, Petersen notes that in 1966, S.Sgt. Barry Sadler's song, "The Ballad of the Green Berets,” topped Billboard's Hot 100 chart for five weeks, and was Billboard's number one single of the year. “It portrayed U.S. servicemembers positively, with lyrics describing them as ‘fearless men’ and ‘America's best,’” Petersen said. “The anthem presented and furthered the public's support of the war and, perhaps more powerfully, its support of America's military members.”

By contrast, Edwin Starr's 1970 hit song "War" topped the Hot 100 chart for nine weeks. It describes the Vietnam War as "good for absolutely nothing" and calls servicemembers "disabled, bitter and mean.” 

“Two very different songs dominated the same chart just four years apart and captured the nation's falling favor toward the Vietnam War and its servicemembers. We found this trend to hold true throughout the war, with popular culture products reflecting popular culture's perceptions and stances toward both the war and its servicemembers,” Petersen said.

Krupich’s research paid particular attention to the mental health of Vietnam veterans. “Many veterans were received back into the United States with protests at the airports where they landed, and many were shamed for their service,” said Krupich. “About 25 percent of Vietnam veterans were drafted and did not voluntarily elect to serve, but still received the same traumatic homecoming reception.”

Vietnam veterans are the demographic with the highest rate of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD, in history, Krupich said. “Their homecomings and pop culture's reception of them were detrimental to their concepts of self, service and identity,” she said.

Because the research is of interest to area veterans, the students were invited to share their findings on WDAY's “Heroes of the Heartland” program hosted by M.Sgt. Eric Marts. They discussed how popular culture can be either beneficial and detrimental to veterans, as well as how failure to distinguish between hate toward war versus hate toward servicemembers can create lasting mental health problems for veterans.

Petersen and Krupich’s research is one of many examples of undergraduate students conducting research at NDSU, and the chance to do meaningful work is appreciated by both students.

“The opportunity to research in a publishable way has greatly benefited both of us,” Petersen said. “Doing research at NDSU has helped us develop academically, professionally and personally; blurring the lines between classroom content and real-world application.”

"Being a part of Dr. Okigbo's class has allowed me to further enhance my research strategies and writing skills. We spent all semester working on our papers, which has allowed us to refine our projects and dig even deeper into a topic that I previously did not know much about,” Krupich said. “The class has provided me with several new opportunities to share my work, which definitely serve as motivation to go above and beyond the classroom expectations."

For more information on their research, contact Petersen or Krupich at rachel.petersen@ndsu.eduor amanda.krupich@ndsu.edu.

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