It was an unexpected turn of events when Julia Cacciotti, an alumna of Bishop Guilfoyle, joined a group of University of Notre Dame students on a trip to Vietnam. According to the Altoona Mirror, Cacciotti had little idea that this journey would result in the retrieval of a piece of a veteran’s legacy for his family.
While pursuing dual majors in psychology and political science with a minor in cyber security, Cacciotti came across an intriguing course called Webb’s War offered by Notre Dame’s International Security Center. With a strong interest in national security and international relations, she felt compelled to enroll.
The class was taught by Professor Michael Desch and James Webb, a former U.S. senator from Virginia and Marine veteran of the Vietnam War. Webb provided the students with a unique perspective by taking them to significant locations in Vietnam, including battlefields. This firsthand experience, guided by someone who had been there, allowed them to gain a deeper understanding of the historical events.
“We would read excerpts from one of (Webb’s) books and then discuss them in class and then he would talk about the area and give us background about Vietnam itself,” Cacciotti told the Altoona Mirror. “Webb has experience and was just sort of preparing us and laying the groundwork for things.”
One particular outing led the group to an old U.S. military airstrip, where they encountered a Vietnamese rice farmer. The farmer approached them, recognizing them as Americans. In a conversation facilitated by Webb’s fluency in Vietnamese, the farmer mentioned finding dog tags while working in the rice fields. Intrigued, Webb asked the farmer to see them.
“He had some other ones, I guess, back at his house,” Cacciotti said. “And he showed them the dog tag, and right away, they were like, ‘What’s your price? We’re gonna buy it. We need to locate this family.’”
The dog tag belonged to USMC Cpl. Larry Hughes, who had lost it while serving near the Da Nang Province in Vietnam back in 1966. Though Hughes survived the war, he had never mentioned losing the tags. When the tags were returned to his son, Carl, he was deeply moved and honored to have them in his possession, providing a small piece of his father’s memory.
“His son was very taken aback, very honored to have received those dog tags,” Cacciotti said. “I know (his family) was very grateful to have that dog tag back in their possession, to (have) a little piece of their dad.”
For Cacciotti, the experience of going to Vietnam and returning with the dog tag felt like completing a full circle. The trip involved visiting museums and learning about the devastating impacts of war, but discovering the dog tag and reuniting the family added a profound dimension to their journey.
This wasn’t Cacciotti’s first international experience. She had previously traveled to France through Saint Francis University and participated in a mission trip to a Catholic orphanage in Honduras during Notre Dame’s spring break. These eye-opening experiences have humbled her and deepened her understanding of different cultures and the challenges faced by people around the world.
Cacciotti believes these experiences will inform her future career path, allowing her to contribute to preventing future conflicts and strengthening relations between countries. The chance to witness firsthand the resilience and struggles of others has provided her with valuable insights and a broader perspective on global affairs.Whizzco