After four decades and thousands of students, a UCSB favorite course ends.

By Sophia Fischer, Photos: Shane Greene

helicopter flying over village in vietnam

For 33 years, Santa Barbara resident Wilson Hubbell has attended the same UC Santa Barbara class. In 1985, the Vietnam War veteran showed up at Campbell Hall in the late Professor Walter Capps’ course on Vietnam and kept returning. Even after Capps left in 1994 to run for Congress and Professor Richard Hecht took over as instructor, Hubbell stayed.

“I learned more about the Vietnam War here than I did during the 18 months I spent there as a soldier,” said Hubbell, who served in an Army helicopter unit from 1966-1968. Over the years, Vietnam veterans as well as veterans of other wars, including Iraq and Afghanistan, joined Hubbell in auditing the class and many shared their wartime experiences with students. About 24,000 students have taken the course since it started in 1978.

“In survey after survey our former students report, decades after their graduation, that it was one of the most important educational experiences they had here,” Hecht said.

That’s exactly how current student Decker McAllister ’19 came to be in the course this past winter quarter.

“I heard about this class from a former professor of mine at Santa Barbara City College. I believe he had taken the class during graduate school here. He informed our entire class that if we ever attended UCSB, to take it because it was the best class he had taken,” McAllister said.

But, after 40 years, winter quarter 2018 marked the end of the course. Hecht is nearing retirement, and Hubbell and fellow Vietnam War veteran Jim Nolan, both integral to the class experience, are suffering the ravages of cancer as a result of the spraying of Agent Orange, a powerful herbicide used by the United States military during the Vietnam War years.

portraits of hecht, hubbell and nolan

Professor Richard Hecht, Veterans, Wilson Hubbell and Jim Nolan

But after 40 years, winter quarter 2018 marked the end of the course. Hecht is nearing retirement, and Hubbell and fellow Vietnam War veteran Jim Nolan, both integral to the class experience, are suffering the ravages of cancer as a result of the spraying of Agent Orange…

Officially called Religious Studies 155, The Impact of the Vietnam War on American Religion and Culture, the course was started in 1978 by Capps. One of the founders of UCSB’s Department of Religious Studies, Capps had a strong connection to veterans developed through an uncle who had been badly injured fighting in World War II. In 1976, as a UCSB professor, Capps met two Vietnam veterans and was inspired to create a class at the university that would bring students and veterans together and benefit both by providing the veterans with an opportunity to share their stories, and expose students to the realities of war. The idea was controversial at the time due to the unpopularity of the Vietnam War.

“Oftentimes in the beginning, the students were similar in age or not that much younger or maybe had older brothers and sisters who had served. UCSB was in the center of a lot of the anti-war movement,” said former Rep. Lois Capps, widow of Walter Capps, who succeeded him in Congress in 1998 after he died of a heart attack nine months into his term in 1997. “Some veterans were hiding in the hills having such a difficult time reentering society, and PTSD had not yet been acknowledged. They helped create that syndrome we now know so well.”

Walter Capps gave students the full range of perspectives about the war, inviting presenters including Vietnamese refugees, Nebraska Senator Bob Kerrey, a decorated Navy SEAL who lost a leg in the Vietnam War; 1972 presidential candidate George McGovern, a World War II veteran and critic of the Vietnam War; and journalist Ed Bradley-from the CBS News program 60 Minutes - who shared his Vietnam War correspondent experiences.

Capps ended each presentation by asking the class to join him in welcoming home the veteran speakers, something that had been denied to returning soldiers during the Vietnam War years. This act acknowledged the veteran’s experience and helped in healing the wounds of war, Hecht added.

“When I stood on the stage, with six or seven others, and was ‘welcomed home’ by a large class of standing and clapping students, I was overwhelmed. It was my first real ‘welcome home.’ I will never forget it and have tears in my eyes even today when I think about it,” recalled Vietnam veteran Tom Massey whose daughter, Kimberly (Massey ’95) Austin was a student in the class at the time. “From that day forward to today, I am more open to discussing my experience.”

Hecht, who has taught at UCSB for 44 years, retained Capps’ vision for the course, inviting speakers including Nolan who spoke to students during the final weeks of the class. Even though many years have passed since Nolan’s service in Vietnam, the memories remain fresh and painful. In the middle of his description about his first 25 days in Vietnam, Nolan paced in front of students in Buchanan 1940, paused and looked down at the floor.

“This is the one I hate talking about the most,” Nolan said in a quiet voice.

One question that continues to haunt: why did the war in Vietnam last so long with so few positive results?

He described how, while on patrol, he’d thrown a grenade into a hole to protect his platoon only to learn that a teenage Vietnamese mother and baby had been hiding inside.

“My commander said, ‘It wasn’t your fault. It could’ve happened to any of us. You did what you had to. You were just following orders,’” Nolan recalled. “But how could it not be my fault? How could it be okay? That was 51 years ago and I still don’t have a place to put that in my brain. There’s no cubbyhole where I can store the memory that here’s where you killed that mother and her baby. It doesn’t fit anywhere and it’s just plain wrong.”

a collage of photos from vietnam

Clockwise from top left: Tracers in Vietnam, photo: Hubbell; Jim Nolan (kneeling) with his squad, photo: Nolan; Nolan speaking to the Religious Studies 155 class, photo: Sophia Fischer; Heliport where Hubbell was stationed, photo: Hubbell; downed helicopter, photo: Hubbell; Nolan (left), Hecht (middle) and Hubbell, photo: Fischer; Hubbell seen out the window of the helicopter picking up equipment, photo: Hubbell; Scott Campbell who Hubbell served along side; Hubbell and his family; Neighborhood in the City of Qui Nhon, photos: Hubbell.

Jasmine Duran ’18 was moved by Nolan’s story.

“The thing is, I never actually stopped to think about the fact that there is more to simply agreeing and disagreeing when at war, and for soldiers it wasn’t about politics, or right from wrong. It was about survival,” said Duran, a global studies major.

Among the lessons students learned in the course:

  • The central aim of Americans in Vietnam was to stop communism, not to develop the economy
  • American troops were ill-prepared to fight the kind of war taking place in Vietnam in jungles and rice fields, where the enemy could not be distinguished from the local population who Americans were there to protect.
  • Few Americans understood the Vietnamese language in order to communicate, or read local newspapers to understand what was happening.
  • A total of four million people were killed in Vietnam, including U.S. military troops, North and South Vietnamese soldiers and civilians.

“One question that continues to haunt: why did the war in Vietnam last so long with so few positive results? Everything we tried diplomatically and militarily failed,” Hecht told students during a recent class. “The reasons the Vietnam War was exceedingly difficult for Americans to come to terms with is that we didn’t win and how significantly divisive it was. Can we, as Americans, put the Vietnam War behind us?”

Students also learned about the long-term effects of the war on the development of American security policy created by multiple presidents and administrations long after the war ended.

“Professor Capps taught our students that religion and history are about human individuals making life-changing decisions and moral choices. He taught us about courage and compassion, and about understanding people whose life experiences were different from our own,” said Chancellor Henry T. Yang. “Like Walter, Professor Hecht has taught our students to search for truth. He has taught us the value of humanity, and the importance of contributing to the public good.”

For Catherine Cabiness-Atkinson ’92, the class brought her closer to her father, a retired Navy veteran who served four tours in Vietnam. He did not speak about the war so Cabiness-Atkinson knew little of his experiences until he accepted the invitation to come to the class.

“When Dr. Capps announced their names, branch of service, and how many tours, I was so incredibly proud of my dad as he stood stoic on the stage with the other veterans.” Cabiness-Atkinson said. “I will be eternally grateful to Dr. Capps for offering a class that allowed people like me to get a glimpse of that time period and grow closer to family members who served in that war.”

Kimia Hashemian ’16, says the course was her favorite at UCSB. After taking it winter quarter 2014, she returned and sat in on the class the following winter quarter just to hear the veterans’ stories.

“This class really got me interested in veterans, and the lack of help they receive from the government. I am currently in law school, and one of the places I hope to one day intern or work for is the Veterans Legal Institute,” said Hashemian. “The bravery of these men and the stories that they told is something I will never forget.”

Surprising Outcome for One Student

“I remember going to class in Campbell Hall and there were hundreds of other students. When Walter Capps extended the invitation to ask a Vietnam vet to attend, I knew I wanted to ask my dad. I knew NOTHING about my dad’s experience in Vietnam other than he was there - he NEVER talked about it and we never asked him. I didn’t know if he would come, but he decided to and it was a day I will never forget.

“Professor Capps asked each of the 6 or 7 veterans to share their story. There on that stage, I saw my dad cry...actually sob...with most of the other men. They were crying out of shared experience, out of 30 years of held in emotions and from the welcome home and thank you that they received from Professor Capps that they all agreed NEVER to that day had ever happened. People had so many negative feelings associated with the U.S. involvement in the war, people forgot about the humanity of those individuals who sacrificed their lives-separate from political views.

“I remember going home that weekend and having my dad share with my family memories from his time in the Army and in the war. He showed us photos, talked and cried about loss of friends who helped keep him alive but lost their lives, and answered questions we had.

“I am sad that the class is coming to an end, but thankful that I chose to take the class. It brought me closer to my dad and gave him something I’m not sure he would have ever gotten if not for this class: a loving welcome home.”

-Kimberly (Massey ’95) Austin