Texas student’s project honors Allentown Green Beret


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ALLENTOWN – The life of a Green Beret from Allentown who served and died during the Vietnam War has been commemorated through a Texas high school student’s project.

At Westlake High School in Austin, Texas, junior Amanda Li was assigned to research Lt. Paul Potter, a member of the U.S. Army Special Forces (Green Berets) from Allentown. The assignment was for the school’s Vietnam project, which has been led by teacher Rachel Leader for the past two years.

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The school’s English Department chairwoman, Rebecka Stucky, co-founded and previously led the Vietnam project for more than a decade.

“In the two short years I have been involved, I can honestly say this is not merely a school assignment,” Leader said. “For many of my students, it ends up being one of their favorite parts of the school year.”

The research project accompanies the juniors’ study of the Vietnam War short story collection “The Things They Carried” by Tim O’Brien.

Each student is given the name of an individual who died in the war and names are typically assigned by state. The names are given at random. Once a student receives the military member’s name, he or she is instructed to do preliminary research about that individual’s military background, hometown and schooling, according to Leader.

“In the end, each student compiles all of their research into a multimedia video with the goal of making a name on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall more than just a name, but rather a life that was lived and deserves to be honored,” she said.

For the 2018-19 school year, students were given names from New Jersey to research and Amanda received the name Paul D. Potter.

“The purpose (of the project) was to commemorate lost servicemen whose names are on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall,” Amanda said. “The idea was to research and construct a video to describe these soldiers as people with a meaningful life and story, and not just one of millions of people who were sent to Vietnam.

“We had to find out basic information about the soldier, such as their hometown, the unit they were in, where they died, the awards or medals they received, and general information about the war during the time period they served in Vietnam,” she said. “Others, including me, managed to find even more personal information by contacting friends or family members who knew the soldier they were researching.”

“From an educational standpoint, the project teaches students research skills and story telling as well as compassion and empathy,” Leader said. “It puts a lot into perspective for these kids, about the true impact of war and loss, especially since many of the names they receive are not much older than they are now.

“I have seen students shine during this project. I have cried during countless videos, only solidifying the fact that the vast majority of our students (born in 2002) are really connecting to these young men as well as to this time in our history. It is a phenomenal project and I am honored to have the chance to be a part of it so early in my career,” Leader said.

According to Amanda’s project, Potter was born in Allentown in 1945 and attended Allentown High School. After graduating from high school in 1963, he enlisted in the Airborne Infantry at Fort Dix. He attended Rutgers University for one year while he was part of the Reserve Officer Training Corps before re-enlisting in the Army at the Officer Candidate School (OCS) at Fort Knox, Ky., and Fort Lee, Va.

Potter graduated from OCS as a quartermaster officer in 1966 and was commissioned as a second lieutenant. He was promoted to first lieutenant in 1967 and subsequently attended Special Forces School in Fort Bragg, N.C., where he trained to become a Green Beret, according to the project.

Shortly after arriving at his base in Da Nang, South Vietnam, Potter was killed during an attack launched by the North Vietnamese Army. He was 23 years old when he died on Aug. 23, 1968.

Amanda’s project states that 16 Green Berets died in the attack, which remains the deadliest in Special Forces history. Posthumously, Potter was awarded the Bronze Star and a Purple Heart. He is buried in Cream Ridge Cemetery in Upper Freehold Township.

Amanda said she found her project about Potter to be meaningful and was excited she was able to receive responses from the individuals she contacted.

“I am still grateful for all the replies I got, from anecdotes to personal pictures to general information, for I knew these people took time out of their lives to reply and help me,” she said. “Even more, it shows that many still remember and think of Lt. Potter 50 years after he was killed.”

Research for her project began at The Virtual Wall and Virtual Vietnam Memorial Wall for basic information, but Amanda started researching Potter’s personal information when she visited the New Jersey Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial website and learned that one of the contributors to his page was Anastasia Essl, a guidance secretary at Allentown High School.

Through subsequent research, Amanda discovered Potter was a Green Beret and was killed in a significant event. This led to contact between her and a Green Beret who was present during the night of the attack.

“Part of the project was finding a unique point of his life to focus on and I thought his being a Green Beret was really special and focused on that and the day he died,” Amanda said.

Amanda was also motivated to research Potter’s military camps after reading obituaries dedicated to him and other contacts gave her general information about OCS and specific pictures. Her contacts for the project included Connie Wright, Potter’s sister.

“They gave a personal touch in the video that highlighted Paul’s individuality that distinguishes him from other soldiers,” the young woman said.

According to the project, Potter had aspirations to become a minister and wrote prayers and sermons. Amanda credited Monica Wright, Connie Wright’s daughter-in-law, with mentioning Potter’s sermons and prayers his family kept.

Potter’s hand-written work was included in the project and read aloud by Amanda.

“Sometimes, one is prone to wonder about life,” Potter wrote. “Particularly, that part of life which deals with truth and morality versus falsehood and immorality. Sometimes, one feels ‘What am I fighting for? What I am promoting when the promotions are received in one year and let escape through the other? What am I painting by setting myself apart from seemingly all others for living by principles of goodness and righteousness?’

“But then, one considers the life he has lived, both good and bad, the lessons learned the hard way. Then, one realizes that once again, that to live life in any other way but in the way he knows to be right is to give up one’s soul, the void remaining to be filled with a frantic despair,” he wrote.

Amanda said she has become inspired to start a website dedicated to military veterans.

“Because of this project and encouragement from my English teacher and the Green Beret I talked to, I would like to start a website that shares stories of veterans,” she said. “In addition to their experiences during active duty, I would like to explore more of their childhood, their hobbies and their training to add a personal aspect to it.

“Also, I would like to encourage them to share stories of fellow comrades they met during training or in Vietnam, for it would be helpful to preserve as many stories as possible,” Amanda continued. “For a project like the one given at my school to last, students would need to find information about their soldier. Personal information like what I obtained would be harder to get just a decade later.

“My hope is that someday a student would be able to use my website and find personal information about their soldier there because I marked it down before that information would not be available anymore. Of course, the greater purpose behind the website would be to commemorate these soldiers as individuals who lived a unique life, though common in that they served for our country.”

On Potter, Amanda said, “I would like to first thank him for his service. Based on anecdotes from various veterans, the training he had to go through to become a first lieutenant and a Green Beret was very difficult. The tragic attack meant that Lt. Paul Potter could not realize his aspirations to become a minister, an event he did not deserve to happen to him.

“I cannot begin to imagine what his family has gone through, especially since his missions were classified. However, because of this project, I am able to comprehend to a certain extent how one soldier among millions lived. I truly appreciate the purpose of this project. Because of all the research I had to go through, I better understand a soldier, from childhood to death, instead of being just a name on the memorial wall.

“The next time I visit Washington, D.C., I will be able to distinguish one name in a sea of millions and perhaps imagine what it would be like to know the story behind all of the individual names,” she continued. “Instead of focusing on the amount of names present and its length, I would think about how each and every one of those names has a background that distinguishes him from every other person on that wall. They were individuals with aspirations, not just one of many who were sent to Vietnam to serve their country and died.”

Amanda concluded her video project with a prayer Potter wrote about death: “I myself fear death, for I have a lot of good deeds that I want to accomplish and if I should die, the world will never feel what I consider the will of God. But then again, I suppose I would give up my soul willingly if asked to do so by God, for out of my death might come more good than if I live. Only God really knows. Therefore, I feel that the choice should be up to him.”

Amanda’s video about Paul Potter can be viewed at: https://eanes.tv/media/t/1_pp4tw9k2/81478061

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