Teacher Feature: Dr. James Kirschke

Kerry Lester

Some prefer to put the Vietnam War in the back of their minds, to view it as an event in a faraway place and time. The Villanova community, however, has a constant reminder that Vietnam was a life-changing occurrence.

A beloved English professor since 1977, Dr. James Kirschke was injured in that controversial war when a blast left him in a wheelchair for the past 35 years.

Kirschke not only lived to tell about his experiences, but also published them in an autobiography entitled “Not Going Home Alone,” which hit bookstores in August 2001 and is now selling tens of thousands of copies.

Written more than 20 years ago, Kirschke first thought the book could be accepted and published immediately. However, he soon learned otherwise: “A lot of the world is timing,” Kirschke said. “When I finished the first draft, people were saying Vietnam books didn’t sell — part of the reason was because many of them were not well-written.

In the end I needed contacts, which my company commander provided. He told me I should write a book about my experiences. After I did, I sent him a copy and he got the ball rolling.”

“Not Going Home Alone” follows Kirschke’s experience as a lieutenant of the Third Platoon Hotel Company, Second Battalion, Fifth Marines. He was in charge of about 30 men stationed in the An Hoa region of Vietnam.

Medic Gerry Holub was injured on the same day as Kirschke. “[Kirschke] is a great guy,” Holub said. “While stationed in Vietnam, he was always very clear and to the point. He believed in and was very committed to what we were doing.”

Kirschke explained that he’s had a lot of contact with other Marines since the book was published. “Most of sales have come from word of mouth and people going into bookstores and seeing it,” he said. “I have some amazing stories of some of the Marines from my platoon just going into an airport and seeing the book on display in a kiosk. I hear of something new every day.”

When he first started to write the book, he thought it would be hard to relive his own injuries. “Actually, I had come to terms with those long ago,” he said. “So, when I actually began to write them down, it was like writing about someone else because I had already worked through it.”

Kirschke said he was fortunate in his return to the United States in 1967. In the Philadelphia Naval Hospital for 13 months, he was insulated from the controversy surrounding Vietnam. “I don’t consider that a normal world, he said. It was not only a hospital, but a military hospital.”

He described the amputee wards as “something like a circus.” “The guys who were wounded were in different degrees of health, but fundamentally they were all healthy males, injuries aside, he explained, “You would see everything on those wards. There were trapeze devices above their beds where guys with no legs would swing from one bed to the next.

Guys with no legs dancing with two prostheses could move better with two wooden legs than some men can do normally.”

After Kirschke recuperated, he knew he wanted to teach college English, but wasn’t sure he had the ability and staying power to get through a doctoral program. In the end, he said being in a wheelchair actually helped with his master’s and doctoral studies. “Germans have a word, sitz fleisch, which is about staying power, Kirschke said. “My being in a wheelchair helped me have the patience to get through the work.” He plunged into graduate school full time, partly because he didn’t want to reflect too much on what happened to him. “I wanted to just get going and get on with my life. I figured, eventually I’ll deal with this. And that is exactly what happened. It took me longer to emotionally recover, but I was doing it little by little as I was doing other things. That way, it was less of a trauma for me.”

Kirschke has one book coming out next winter about an 18th century American, Gov. Morris, and two more books in the making. One of these is a scholarly book titled “Atlantic Revolutionaries,” which he is working on piecemeal. Kirschke explains that he is writing about the experiences of “representatives from each of the 13 colonies who were pro-British and then changed their minds to became pro-patriot and also served in the Congress as well.”

In the meantime, if you’re looking for something to read, head down to Borders in Rosemont to pick up a copy of “Not Going Home Alone.” “The book is excellent,” Holub said. “Kirschke is an amazing guy. You have to have an incredible will to do what he’s done. And, well, he’s got it.”