Students in Ms. Maureen O’Connor’s English 12 class were treated to a guest speaker Friday, January 12, as Mr. Randy Ruiz, a 10-year veteran of the Marine Corps who retired as a Major, spoke to the class about his experiences in the Gulf War. The students, who are reading Tim O’Brien’s award-winning novel The Things They Carried, heard about not only Mr. Ruiz’s experiences, but his own take on O’Brien’s novel.
While there are several differences between Vietnam and the Gulf War – the former lasted eight years while the latter was 100 hours in duration – Mr. Ruiz brought three vignettes from O’Brien’s narrative to life, introducing echoes of his own experiences.
“What I really wanted,” Ms. O’Connor reflects, “is for students to understand the connection between the novel and the world they live in today. People are still making the same sacrifices.”
Citing the first story in the collection, in which O’Brien describes both tangible and intangible objects carried by soldiers, Mr. Ruiz discussed things that he, himself, carried. Items circulated amongst the students included: a map of Iraq, a book outlining Iraqi forces, his personal journal, an artillery journal, dog tags, and a P-38. This final item, a multi-tool used to open cans of food, was nicknamed “John Wayne” by men for its toughness. Mr. Ruiz also shared his Bible, which he received upon entering Officer Candidate School in 1980.
More importantly, though, students heard about the emotional items soldiers took with them abroad.
Recounting his time deployed in Saudi Arabia, Mr. Ruiz echoed O’Brien’s description of mementos from home.
“Letters are more important than paychecks,” he told students, as while paychecks can come and go, “letters…that’s a piece of home.”
Mr. Ruiz took the students through the first section of the novel, in which O’Brien’s narrator mourns the loss of one of his men. Mr. Ruiz cites this passage as one that resonates with his own experiences, adding, “My job was to get [my unit] there, do the job, and get them back. I didn’t want to write a letter to a parent saying their son or daughter died.”
He later recounted the sacrifices he, himself, had to make. Whether it was enduring the mental and physical aspects of OCS, preparing his men for their ultimate deployment in August of 1990, or the months away from home during his two deployments, it was hard work and determination that helped him persevere.
Mr. Ruiz also spoke of his enlistment process, which was quite different from the experiences of many in Vietnam. Unlike many of the characters in O’Brien’s novel, Mr. Ruiz volunteered his service, enlisting in the Marine Corps during his Junior year of college. While acknowledging that enlistment was a tough decision, Ruiz drew again from O’Brien’s novel when discussing his choice.
In “On the Rainy River,” O’Brien’s character contemplates running to Canada in order to avoid his draft notice. Ruiz cites the support provided by supplemental characters as an aspect of the book that rings true with his own, while different, experiences.
“In the story O’Brien is out fishing, and he has Elroy there for support. I have an Elroy in my life, too. When I decided to enlist, I had to talk to my mom. She wasn’t happy with it, but she supported me…It’s important that you not judge when you have someone making a decision.”
A consistent theme through the presentation was that of dedication, hard work, and helping others. Whether discussing his experiences telling men of an impending deployment, recognizing the values of America as a country, or the importance of teamwork in the military, Ruiz reinforced that many of the same qualities embodied by these characters are important for students to possess today, working to achieve Ms. O’Connor’s vision for the presentation.
“The whole concept of social responsibility is extremely important,” she adds. “It’s about the choices people are making that are not for themselves; they’re thinking of everyone else around them.”
As Mr. Ruiz wrapped the first of two sessions, he offered this advice to the students: “Everything takes determination. But if you keep working, you can achieve what you really want in life.”