The belated welcome home call went out. It was late, far too late. In fact, it was a tardy invitation that took forty years to get to the invitees, the so-called child killers, the drug abusers, the untouchables, the despised, and the unworthy. Why should a homecoming be in order for this collection of apparent outcasts and misfits? Just maybe a country has finally come to grips with its unfinished business to salve its conscience for wrongly branding and shunning the return of nearly a generation of its youth it sent to South East Asia four decades ago. Never before in American history has a returning fighting force been so stigmatized. Truthfully, this mournful group has been mischaracterized and misrepresented. The time had come to properly classify them as the forgotten, the unwanted, the forlorn, and the injured—in body and spirit. At least one place in America, the great state of Wisconsin, was through with the hand wringing and tried to atone for its neglect by opening its arms to finally embrace its wounded warriors—those who served in the Vietnam War.
In the fall of 2009, plans were finalized for a tribute to welcome home Wisconsin’s Vietnam Veterans in Green Bay on May 21-23, 2010. The venue would have a famous ring to it: Lambeau Field, home of the legendary Green Bay Packers. To give the event familiar Vietnam relevance, it was labeled “LZ Lambeau”, named after the landing zones (LZ’s) that many in Vietnam were ferried to by helicopters during combat operations. The project was developed by Wisconsin Public Television (WPT), The Wisconsin Department of Veterans Affairs, and the Wisconsin Historical Society. This undertaking quickly gained support for funding from the Ho-Chunk Nation, The Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, Wisconsin Public Service Foundation, Kwik Trip, Forest County Potawatomi, Oshkosh Defense, General Motors Dealers of Northeast Wisconsin, Chevrolet, Buick, GMC Truck and Cadillac, Ron and Colleen Myers, Oneida Nation, Philip J. and Elizabeth B. Hendrickson, Festival Foods, Hydrite Chemical Co., and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. The support for LZ Lambeau dovetailed with and helped underwrite the WPT’s production of a three-hour epic documentary, Wisconsin Vietnam War Stories, whose broadcast premiere occurred in May 2010. In addition, planning and input came from many veteran organizations, to include Vietnam Veterans of America-Wisconsin State Council, Disabled American Veterans, Veteran of Foreign Wars Department of Wisconsin, American Legion of Wisconsin, Wisconsin Department of Military Affairs, the Military Order of the Purple Heart, Veterans of the Menominee Nation, and the Stockbridge-Munsee Mohican Nation, The Hmong Veterans of Wisconsin, AMVETS, and the Patriot Riders, all who had a vested interest to welcoming home its wounded warriors.
It is uncertain if any of the above private sponsors sensed remorse for slighting its Vietnam Veterans. If anything, this mistreated military cohort could take solace that at least part of the American establishment finally felt their pain. What was offered to alleviate their anguish, after all these fitful and lonely years, was a memorable weekend of participation by veterans organizations, their families and friends, and featuring educational initiatives, oral presentations, museum exhibits, portrait and writing displays of those who served in Vietnam, Vietnam-era military vehicles and aircraft, music/entertainment, fellowship opportunities, The Moving Wall™, the revered traveling replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, and a cross-state motorcycle Honor Ride of Vietnam Veterans from La Crosse to Green Bay. It was hoped that this varied and solemn program would not disappoint the Vietnam Vet, who after all these years was still ailing and in need of spiritual aid and comfort.
Given the dwindling numbers of surviving Vietnam Veterans, LZ Lambeau was not launched a minute too soon. About 2.7 million Americans served in Vietnam, 9.7% of their generation. Today, it is estimated that less than 850,000 to be alive, with the youngest Veteran’s age at 58. Compared to their counterparts who did not serve, that is a frightening figure, given the average life expectancy for males is 74 years old. With that kind of precipitous mortality rate, far too many more will die prematurely. It is apparent that the war took its toll, regardless of related combat deaths, about 58,200, for those fortunate ones to return to American shores. Although 85% of Vietnam Veterans made what would be termed a “successful” transition to civilian life, a significant number suffered from the harmful effects of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), alcoholism, divorce and dysfunctional families, drug addiction, suicide, and the debilitating and fatal effects of the Agent Orange toxic defoliant used by the military in the Vietnam theater of operations. In essence, that is the dire situation analysis for a disabled and infirm band of brothers—suffering in ways that the general public knows little. Yeah, they are wounded, all right.
When LZ Lambeau convened on Friday, May 21, 2010, it was a gloomy and overcast day. In some ways the environment was symbolic. Albeit a bit cooler in Wisconsin, it was not unlike conditions for those American servicemen who encountered similar weather at times in the Central Highlands of Vietnam. What was more important was the peace and congeniality about the place. Green Bay was there with open arms, a stark contrast to the hostile American reactions many returning Vietnam GI’s encountered upon their return. With numerous LZ Lambeau banners posted on the light poles of the major thoroughfares and placed on the lawns of a good proportion of private homes leading to Lambeau Field, it paved the way for the healing of the wounded warrior. It was an optimal setting for those looking for closure, an elusive term with mixed meanings, depending on the Vet you talked to. Others came to be reunited with old war buddies, to share their experiences with family, or to accept the grateful hand that was extended to them. All were in need of either a cure, especially if they were embittered by the whole warfare experience, or a reinforcement that their lives could now be at ease with their Vietnam participation.
To begin the healing, a huge white-colored tarpaulin map, about one-hundred feet long on all its sides, was stretched across the Lambeau parking lot, with the Indo-China war zones, Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam, painted in black, to include the major bases and battle sites of the epic encounters between American and North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces: An Khe, Ashau Valley, Ban Me Thout, Bien Hoa, Cam Ranh Bay, Can Tho, Con Thien, Cu Chi, Dak To, Dalat, Danang, Dong Tam, The DMZ, Duc Pho, Hue, IA Drang Valley, The Iron Triangle, Khe Sanh, Kontum, Long Bien, Nha Trang, Pleiku, Quang Tri, Qui Nhon, Saigon, Tuy Hoa, and LZ X-ray. Veterans, by themselves or with assistance if they were infirm or in wheelchairs, approached these hallowed locations with memories of blood, sweat, and tears, some dropping to their knees and weeping. By the end of the three- day event, short messages were written with black Sharpie pens to fill the entire map. They were memorable words of bravery, especially to fallen comrades they left behind, signposts that they were there and survived, and even sentimental messages from the survivors back home who still missed their loved ones who did not return. To wit: Pleiku: “RIP KIA 1967 SP4 Roger Goldsmith, Black River Falls, Wis. 1967”; Cam Ranh Bay: “In memory of Lyle Thompson. Thank you, uncle”; Quang Tri: “Edward Vester, Died May 6, 1970. You were my life. Love always, Connie”; and “In memory of the 88 Marines and Corpsmen from Echo Co, 2/7 Marine Div. Semper FI. Robert Lindmark.” One wheelchair bound Vet, Jim Hitchcock, Lisbon, struggled from his chair and went to his knees at the Pleiku sign. He poignantly wrote: “Jim Hitchcock 588th Eng. I’m sorry. Rest in peace”. For many, Hitchcock summarized the indifference and negativity he received when he came home: “I grew my hair long and I got lost. If anyone asked me if I was in the service, I would say no.” Oh, the curse of Cain this disheartened legion carried. The map was a repository of the good, the bad, and the ugly of America’s sad adventure on the mainland of Asia.
On day one, on the west side of the magnificent Lambeau complex, the salute from Rolling Thunder was making its grand entrance to the festivities. Organized by four Vietnam Veterans in 1987 to bring awareness to the plight of the POW’s (prisoners of war) and to the MIA’s (missing in action), it was an attempt to petition the government to take responsibility to search and account for those abandoned after the Vietnam War ended. They typically ride in large numbers of motorcycle caravans, with thousands of bikes converging on Washington, DC on Memorial Day to get the message across that there is still work to be done to bring to rest the quest for POW’s and MIA’s. At LZ Lambeau, a symbolic participation by Rolling Thunder, three waves of motorcycles from across Wisconsin, made its presence known by arriving in the early afternoon, complete with local police and Wisconsin State Patrol escorts. Their numbers totaled 1244, the same figure for the Wisconsin individuals who lost their lives in Vietnam. There was an irony about this resolute and raucous bunch. Many were dressed in the raiment of the anti-war protestors, who stridently decried their service in Vietnam, viz., denim shirts and pants, leather boots, leather jackets and vests, beads and bangles, and headbands. It was if the counterculture of the 60’s had realized the errors of their ways and had been transformed into foreign war legionnaires. This gang didn’t look wounded or downcast. Rather, with American and military unit battle flags mounted to many of their bikes, this gray haired cavalcade of men, and, yes, some proud women, too, let you know they were still engaged in a battle to find their lost brethren. They revved their engines as they parked their vehicles, a final accent to a dramatic entry to LZ Lambeau.
In a grassy area across the street on the west side of Lambeau, serpentine lines were forming to view The Moving Wall™, a smaller version of the one in Washington, DC. For many, The Wall is a coming to grips with the tragedy and the heartbreak of the loss of comrades in war. It still overwhelms some; but in other ways salves the souls of all to view the names of the fallen. They left mementos of combat boots, black and white photos, and roses. To be sure, the names of the deceased are coldly etched in marble, but they have a warm, palpable connection for those who fought in Vietnam. They recall mostly painful and unsettling moments. Using a crayon and white paper, Don Chic, 64, West Allis, delicately extracted the names of four buddies who didn’t make it back, to include one at Khe Sanh and two at China Beach. A Marine in line, who served two tours from 1966 to 1968, recalled how he was branded a “baby killer” when he came home at O’Hare Airport in Chicago. Like so many in attendance that weekend he was hoping for “a little bit of peace”.
For some, LZ Lambeau took on a supernatural quality. Such was the uniqueness of this milieu. One Vet wanted to reach out to a buddy, and, beyond belief, the dead one acknowledged him. Preposterous? At The Wall™, this member of the 4th Infantry Division in Vietnam experienced an ethereal event that goes beyond a rational explanation. He was given the panel location by the helpful staff for the name of an MIA US Navy pilot. Once there, his wife took his photograph at his comrade’s sacred spot. She took a second photo just of the name, chiseled succinctly into the black marble façade. But something else was about to be imbedded indelibly into the historical record. In life, timing is everything for seminal moments. Nearby, two of his fellow Vets needed assistance to picture them together adjacent to The Wall using their camera. After the shot, a second, more profound delay, transpired when they requested that all three Vets be part of a group photo. When his wife captured the trio on film, they went their separate ways in a spirit of brotherhood. The pause to extend mutual good feelings was about to be rewarded—from above. The Vet and his wife left The Wall to head back across the street to the Lambeau festivities. After walking about one-hundred feet, names were being enunciated with a slow, reverent delivery over a PA system. Then, the two unsuspecting venerators were struck by an audio thunderbolt. The name of the person just visited at The Wall was called out! First, middle, and last names. It was him! What was this? A coincidence? A happening against all odds?
To determine the chances of this occurring, the Vet checked with nearby staff to learn why the names were being aired to the public. Did he have one chance in 1, 244, the number of those from Wisconsin killed or MIA In Vietnam, to hear the name? No, it was more inexplicable. He was told they were in the process of announcing all 58, 200 individuals on The Wall throughout the tree-day event! That shook his state of mind. To him, it bordered on the miraculous. But, more importantly, it corroborated the noble purpose he had for revisiting his wartime past. We can say with certainty is that if the Vet did not stop to join his military friends at The Wall, in a spirit of camaraderie that these Vietnam warriors seem to understand and practice, he would not have heard his buddy’s name at the moment in time and space it was announced. Happenstance comes and goes; the truly remarkable is never forgotten. You see, if you really want to heal, you may have to believe in a possible miracle when it comes your way.
Day two of LZ Lambeau was more mundane, a time for reconnecting with fellow Vietnam Vets through a series of programs and exhibits. It started with Vets carrying flags, being saluted and hugged by well-wishers. Oh, what a feeling of joy—decades withheld. During an opening prayer, a Bronze Star and Purple Hear recipient with the 101st Airborne, Cletus Ninham, 66, Oneida, told the assembled that it was time to forgive a country that mistreated them. It was up to them to move ahead or dwell in the dark past. To uplift their spirits after that, Native Americans, from the Oneida, Menominee, and the Stockbridge-Munsee Mohican Nations, circled into powwow formation and sang out in their high-pitched tones and banged their drums with authority, as if to shake the heavens above for recognition. The irony of LZ Lambeau was the contribution and sponsorship for the event by Native American groups. While their ancestors were treated with cruelty and deception, they showed brotherhood by supporting the downtrodden and the forgotten, regardless of their backgrounds. The artifacts of war, trucks, artillery, tanks and helicopters occupied the northeast corner of the Lambeau parking lot. Across town, at Green Bay’s Austen Straubel International Airport, Vietnam era, i.e., HUEY and Chinnook helicopters, and modern planes, to include F-18 Air Force fighters, were on display.
One of the major focal points during the day was inside the Lambeau Field Atrium, a striking five story edifice of enclosed glass that abuts the northeast corner of the stadium. It houses restaurants, a fan zone, the Packer Pro Shop, and Green Bay Packers Hall of Fame. On this day it graciously conceded its professional football luster and exploits to those who struggled to survive in a different arena of more deadly competition: the killing fields of Southeast Asia. On the ground level of the Atrium impressive displays of uniforms and equipment amassed by the Vietnam Veterans of America, Post 351 of Appleton. One could view American and enemy, both North Vietnamese Army and Vietcong, uniforms, weapons, and material, all tangible artifacts of war. Another exhibit, Wisconsin’s Fallen Heroes, was a yeoman effort by Wisconsin reference librarians and genealogists to assemble the obituary of or the newspaper article about every Wisconsin killed in action (KIA) in the Vietnam War. It made for pensive and heart aching reading. One saw a smaller version of the Three Soldiers, a bronze statue designed by Frederick Hart on the Washington, DC Mall, which commemorates the struggle with three young soldiers, an African American, an Hispanic, and a Caucasian. Canada was represented with their Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall, featuring the names of 121 Canadians killed while serving with American combat units. Veterans or well- wishers could express their feelings on white message boards, the Memory Wall. Several stand out to capture the bittersweet experiences from the war: “We were winning when I left” and the moving “I left Vietnam; Vietnam Never left me.” It was obvious some came to LZ Lambeau for closure; others either re-opened or could not heal old wounds.
Various special presentations, “Wisconsin Vietnam War Stories: Our Veterans Remember” (more on this below), “Wisconsin Women in Vietnam”, “The Legacy of the Secret War in Laos”, two offerings to heal through writing and music, “The Deadly Writers Patrol: Writing That Gives Voice to the Vietnam Veterans Feelings” and “Guitars for Vets”, and a dramatic presentation by the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay and the Green Bay Community Theater: “The Tragedy of Achilles in Vietnam” were all well attended. However, two University of Wisconsin-Madison individuals, Doug Bradley, a UW publicist and a Vietnam Veteran in 1970-71, and professor of Afro-American Studies, Craig Werner, a prize winning music writer and a member of the Nominating Committee of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, were standouts in their “We Gotta Get Out of This Place: Music and the Vietnam Experience” session. They are collaborating on a soon to be published book with the same title, a musical tapestry set against the voices of popular songs during the 1960s and 1970s. The program was held in the Atrium meeting room named after a famous college and professional football hero, Paul Hornung. It was an apt site, because the presenters played the golden oldies songs that meshed well with the “Golden Boy” Packer icon. Bradley and Werner posit that rock music from the era connects Vietnam Veterans with a point in time and a poignant memory. As a means of healing, they feel the very act of talking about the individual songs and artists can be “cathartic” for many. Werner also feels the power of song can fill the void where words simply fail. To Werner, “music is where memory lives.”
It was an audience, which packed the room, filled with anticipation and ready to perform. They gave vent to their repressed feelings by listening to and singing along with the classic songs that waxed so familiar. Bradley introduced the songs and circulated through the crowded aisles, requesting Vets to provide their input as Werner played the songs on the stereo. Songs of note that gave the Vets a needed release were:
We Gotta Get Out of This Place, by the Animals. The Vets sang to the music with fervor, a song that was the Vietnam anthem, a touchstone that resonated because of the abject place Vietnam was for most.
Chain of Fools, by Aretha Franklin. This song symbolized a disgruntled attitude between the “grunts” (infantry) and their chain of command. It had particular meaning for Afro-Americans Vets. Ironically, many felt they were fighting for a foreigner’s rights in Vietnam, ones they did not enjoy at home.
Fortunate Son, by Credence Clearwater. The group’s lead singer, John C. Fogarty, avoided the draft. So many others weren’t as “fortunate” enough, especially draftees, to miss serving in an unpopular war.
Leaving on A Jet Plane, by Peter, Paul and Mary. One Vet took the microphone from Bradley and broke down because he recalled the heartache of leaving loved ones for unforeseen dangers in Vietnam.
These Boots Are Made For Walking, by Nancy Sinatra. More than a few Vets recalled memories of slogging through the rice paddies, jungles, and remote mountain areas in Vietnam.
In sum, this was a session that facilitated expression with the potential to bind wounds through song. Many Vets who were there seemed to be better for it by easing their pain through singing.
On Saturday night, the feature program, held inside the historic confines of Lambeau Field, was dedicated to a different breed of gladiators—those who stared at death and managed to survive the Vietnam experience. As a stirring reminder to remember the fallen and the unaccounted for, the brilliant green field, unmarked with the usual dimensions of an NFL playing field, had neatly arranged rows of 1244 white chairs, representing the same number of Wisconsin KIAs and MIAs in Vietnam. The evening was accented by several speakers, to include heartfelt greetings from Packer president, Mark Murphy, and Governor Jim Doyle (“The 5.8 million people of Wisconsin will never forget”), musical groups who played/sang songs from the era (Ben E. King was a surprise guest to lift the audience’s spirits in the stands with upbeat singing), a special presentation by Rolling Thunder, complete with all the decorum to set the special table for one, in hopes an MIA some day may join you for dinner, comic relief provided by a Native American Vet, Jim Northrup, an Ojibwa author and humorist (“Hello, I’m Jim Northrup, a full blooded Ojibwa, born in Fond du Lac, also known as Minnesota”), and flyovers above the stadium by Vietnam era aircraft.
But the anticipated attraction were previews on the large Lambeau Tundra Screens of Wisconsin Vietnam War Stories, a two-year project produced by Wisconsin Public Television. Segments from this evocative and stirring three-hour documentary included footage from the conflict and numerous interviews with Vietnam Vets and their reminiscences from the war, a few that were tear jerking, morose recollections. The documentary relates the stories from those who served in this struggle, many of whom who recalled their experiences that, as a minimum, were honorable, and a few that were truly heroic. One of the unbelievable exploits presented was that of Gary Wetzel’s actions as a door gunner with the 173rd Assault Helicopter Company. After the previews, Wetzel appeared in front of an audience, to a standing ovation, bedecked with his deserved Congressional Medal of Honor medal around his neck. Wetzel described to the crowd the day his actions went above and beyond the call of duty. Briefly, although bleeding profusely from the loss of his left arm and with other wounds to his right arm, left leg and chest, Wetzel had the presence of mind to lay covering fire on the enemy and helped with the rescue of his helicopter crew, to include the commander who was severely wounded after being blown into a nearby rice paddy. Wetzel exhibited the ultimate grace under pressure when he was threatened by a VC attacker from out of the bush. Brandishing a terrifying bayonet in his hands as he charged Wetzel, the enraged adversary aimed for a fatal strike to the stomach. However, it was “fortunate” that he missed and inflicted a “lesser” wound to the left leg. Wetzel coolly said how he survived the ordeal: “I was also armed with a .45 caliber pistol and I eliminated the threat.” He was sincere when he said: “I wear this Medal for you, not me.” For sure, a wounded warrior that, to this day, who exhibits all that is admirable and exemplary to help fellow Vets come to terms with their Vietnam experience.
The evening concluded with a moving speech by Sgt. Major Edgar Hansen, a veteran of Korea, Vietnam, and heading to a fourth Middle East tour in Afghanistan before he finally retires. With a military cadence drumbeat reverberating in the night air, Hansen directed the crowd of 30,000, made up of Vets, their families, and friends, to the south entrance of Lambeau. He ordered 400 members of the Wisconsin National Guard, in desert camouflage uniforms and black berets, to circle the field and stand at attention facing the empty but endearing 1244 white chairs. The command was given and the troop saluted in unison the absent but not forgotten formation. Then, ordered to about face, they looked up to the thousands of their Vietnam compatriots in the stands. They gave an emphatic salute to them, which was accepted with a special meaning: one soldier acknowledging another, from one era to another. But those who served in Vietnam also knew the special courage and devotion to duty that their active duty brothers and sisters on the field were going through. Instinctively, without direction, they reciprocated with their own salute from the stands to those at attention beneath them on the field. Thus, the circle of a soldier’s mutual admiration society was unbroken, an unending alliance among each other that is only understood by those who answer their country’s call. It had to make the Vietnam Vets feel elated with a sense of fulfillment as they filed out of the stadium and into a night that was not as dark as the many they endured as forgotten servants to America.
As this fraternity of warriors departed the festive scene on the third day, after renewing old wartime friendships and making new ones, some observations are in order.
It was probably the first time that many returning Vietnam Vets were greeted by strangers who bestowed paeans upon them. They had to feel gratified to have the state of Wisconsin and the local people from the city of Green Bay to welcome them warmly, some who even reverently kneeled down and said: “Thank you for your service.” Some felt it was unexpected and unnecessary, but some reacted to the adulation with mixed feelings. Dave Kenealy, Oak Creek, wounded twice and missing a leg after a five-year tour in Vietnam, reacted by saying: “For me, I healed already, but this seems to open the wound a little bit. It took so many years to get past where I was, but seeing the military displays, seeing the disabled veterans brings back some of the memories I don’t want.” Another Vet did not find the closure he was looking for. Dennis Shaw, Prairie du Sac, said: “I don’t think we’ll ever have closure.” He still recalled the contempt his country had for him with no welcome or worse. More favorable reactions were voiced by others. Tim DeChant, Drummond, a Marine forward observer in 1968 and 1969, who confided: “I did see friends get killed, and there is no closure for that.” But he appreciated the tribute: “I thought it was great, really good.” Gary Krause, Berlin, needed help to get to his feet after signing the map in the parking lot with his name , rank-Specialist 4 Army- and time in Vietnam –1970 70 1971 He gratefully acknowledged: “It’s fabulous, absolutely fabulous. I don’t have bitter feelings for not being recognized (after the war), but I’m glad they are doing it now. It was a long time in coming.” Nevertheless, there is a lingering side effect from war’s imprint. In the end, for some, there is the unintended consequence that bestowed benevolence is not a panacea for everyone’s physical and mental wounds.
The estimate is that about 165,000 served in Vietnam from Wisconsin. It is uncertain how many are alive today. At best, given the above mortality rates of their numbers in general, perhaps half that number walk this earth. Attendance for the three-day ceremony was estimated at 70,000, of which half were Vietnam Veterans. That’s a lot of Vets who did not attend, either due to their physical or psychological condition or they did not receive the word that the event was being held in their honor. On the surface, the overall health of the Vets can be described as fair to good. The effects of age has touched all of them all. They are grayer and move at a slower pace. More than a few have special physical problems with loss of limbs and lingering effects of internal war wounds. It’s too bad the turnout was not larger. But organizers of the celebration did not finalize the dates for LZ Lambeau until October 2009. When the word got out several months before the event, it was too late for both state-wide and national veterans groups to help promote it. Still, Wisconsin’s tribute prompted other states to expand the good feelings by holding similar activities. On July 4, 2010 LZ Michigan occurred in Grand Rapids. While not to the scale and scope of LZ Lambeau, it’s a good start for other states to extend a hand of welcome to those they rejected. There are so many more Vietnam Vets out in America’s hinterland who need a healer’s touch.
The premiere showing of WPT’s of Wisconsin Vietnam War Stories should be a template for increased pictorial productions that pay homage to the Vietnam Veteran. After it previewed at LZ Lambeau, it was immediately aired the subsequent Monday night in three nightly installments to Wisconsin Public Television outlets. The hope is that it will eventually be picked up and beamed nationally over the wider PBS network. It merits the country’s attention. Hopefully it will start a precedent for others to emulate Without doubt the contribution to the war effort by Wisconsin’s native sons is just a microcosm of the broader Vietnam effort the whole country put forth. There are unknown, countless tales of heroism and self-sacrifice that can be told by the wounded warriors in every state in the union.
Given the fact that Hollywood has brutalized, mischaracterized, and vilified the American soldier in Vietnam, there is an urgent need to objectively and more accurately portray what occurred in Southeast Asia. Films of note about the war are all filled with troubling scenes and story lines. Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976) reinforced an exaggerated, deranged perception that Vietnam Veterans were virtual psychopaths. Michael Cimino’s The Deerhunter (1978) does a fair treatment of the Veteran’s readjustment to civilian life with his battles with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, suicide, infidelity, and mental illness. But the actions of the story’s heroes, especially in country, borders on the improbable. But it’s the movies, and dramatic license is a fact of life. This might explain Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979) and Oliver Stone’s Academy Award winning Platoon (1986). Coppola’s effort is more a celluloid redux of Joseph Conrad’s novel, Heart of Darkness, rather than striving for a hint of realism about Vietnam. Stone, a Vietnam Vet, does a more commendable job with his film, but the movie’s protagonists, staff sergeants Robert Barnes and Elias Grodin, are again too incredulous to be believed. The US Army would have put either or both in the stockade long before what they perpetrated on themselves and the men they commanded.
But there are some theatricals that have put a favorable light on the plight of the Vietnam Vet, especially on the home front. Stone atones for the hyperbole of Platoon with his later grim but honest rendition of a real world Vietnam wounded warrior, Ron Kovic, in his Born on the Fourth of July (1989). It illustrates the inhumane treatment of severely disabled Vietnam soldiers. The film was a clarion call, led by Kovic and his fellow comrades, to mobilize the forces to enact the American With Disabilities Act (ADA), a watershed piece of legislation to finally address the needs of all Americans with serious physical impairments. Mel Gibson’s We Were Soldiers (2002) gives a fair treatment of both American and enemy forces (North Vietnamese Army) during the battle of the Ia Drang Valley in 1965. He earns compliments for also depicting the agonizing moments on the home front as it affected the women their men left behind.
To be sure, this is not an indictment of Hollywood. Rather, it is a call for an expanded, more truthful, and comprehensive audiovisual record about Vietnam and those Americans who fought in it. Indeed, for too long we seem to be still clinging to the feel good nostalgia of World War II by a continual barrage of films, television series, and documentaries about what happened sixty-five years ago. On the other hand, Vietnam is an afterthought because of all the vitriol it generated with its negative outcome and the divisive toll it took on the nation. Is it also because defeat (Vietnam) is an orphan and victory (World War II) has many fathers? For these reasons we are inclined to be repulsed and not attracted to Vietnam. The time is now, while a dwindling number of Vietnam Vets can be contacted, to tell their story with a sincere effort to make amends for their national slight.
A good start to better appreciate this unique historical epoch is to do it on a grander scale. This could occur if Ken Burns, America’s documentary producer par excellence, does not rule out a production about Vietnam. It would be a letdown if he does not follow through with such a project to fill a void in American history, one that is yearning to be depicted now that the country has calmed down from the paroxysms of pain the conflict inflicted four decades ago. It is good to know that Burns can refer to some high quality baseline research material that was first introduced at LZ Lambeau: Wisconsin Vietnam War Stories alone.
This writer, a Vietnam Veteran, would be remiss if he did not reveal his personal feelings about the impact of LZ Lambeau. I was in need of healing after I left Vietnam forty-three-years ago. It took a period of adjustment, with bouts of anger and despair as I tried to acclimate to civilian life. While I have been guarded in discussing my experiences in country, I attempted to make peace with Vietnam by loosely basing my experiences in my novel, Landon’s Odyssey, which was published in 2007. I dedicated the book to my fellow Vietnam Veterans. For them, I crafted a story that would be a refreshing change from some of the works written by other Vets, which dwell on the maudlin and the melancholy, with scant rays of hope for a brighter tomorrow. Comparatively speaking, this tale of the 60s has a positive and triumphant ending for those who came “Back to the World.” It might not extirpate all their demons, but from what I saw at LZ Lambeau there are still a number of my brothers in need of a upbeat future. I am particularly elated that those Vietnam Vets who have read the book have come away with a sense of optimism.
For me, it was so gratifying to see my home state and the public at large finally make a public statement that we Vets were wronged and deserved to be commended for our service. Yes, this was far too late, especially for the thousands who went to early graves without receiving the respect they deserved. By participating first-hand with the efforts of Rolling Thunder, who will never let us forget our POWS and MIAS, it uplifted my spirits. To feel a sense of belonging by mingling with other wounded warriors, many whom I met for the first time, made for sweet and easy feeling, knowing that if no one else cares we still do about ourselves. Sure there were sufficient speeches, generous gestures of praise and thanks, and musical entertainment to make things bright. However, what touched me the most was the ineffable sensation to be with “the guys” again. Things are still not the best for many of us but we made it back alive and tried to make the most of a very difficult situation in our personal and professional lives. The wounds ran deep, but, in reality, they were not mortal.
In conclusion, just visiting The Wall again, and what occurred shortly thereafter, will stay with me until the day I die. You see, I’m the guy who heard his buddy’s name after a prayer was offered to him at his station of glorified honor. There is an explanation for most human events—but not this one. The coincidence was improbable; too many variables needed to be scientifically in place to rule out an acknowledgement from the spiritual world. If I wasn’t truly comfortable in my own skin after surviving Vietnam, this miracle gave me the ultimate peace I was looking for. Although LZ Lambeau has come and gone, it will have lasting effects. It’s ingrained in my being because the goodness and remembrance we bequeath to the fallen has not been in vain. Don’t underestimate the unseen mollifying forces that make this earthly existence more bearable for we temporal beings. After all, isn’t that the ultimate cure for a wounded warrior?
The following is an excerpt from LOA’s interview with Joe Gasparetti:
LOA: So you’re putting on spoken word performances…I watched the clips on your website here it was really good.
Joe: Thanks. There was one show where these fraternity kids came in with dates and you look out into the audience, it was so riveting, I saw people in tears out there. We have plenty of Iraq vets on stage, victims of the IEDs, and seeing their buddies fly out of the Humvees…and one Air Force major, her story is that she was in the Pentagon when the plane hit. It’s unbelievable. We have six men, two women, three army, three Marines, couple navy and Air force. It was one of the most meaningful things I’ve done. People have really responded well.
LOA: I’ve always been a little embarrassed by our homecoming compared to the one your generation received. I’m wondering if there’s any amount of bitterness or resentment because of it.
Joe: You know, it’s interesting…veteran against veteran…it’s tragic that it happens…the only animosity that I’ve noticed from the Vietnam veterans is with the WWII guys. We’ve had trouble getting into the VFW or the Legion because they look down on us because we lost that war. You know they sort of strut their chest and have that “we won ours” kind of thing. And yet, and I think Afghanistan is probably the same way as Vietnam. I mean, we in Vietnam got shot at more often than the guys in world war II…
LOA:….yes, and it’s a constant threat, you know, there’s rarely set piece battles, but a lot of patrols and reacting to contact…
Joe: …so, I relate to the guys from Iraq and Afghanistan. The government has put the troops in a bad situation, you don’t know who the enemy is, who could turn on you, there’s no end result, and you’re just fighting, just patrolling and fighting. No, no animosity from me towards your generation. When the national guard unit returned here, I went and welcomed them, I admire them. I know how tough it is. Most of the guys from Vietnam that I know certainly don’t resent it.
LOA: Have you reconciled at all with the enemy, or the idea of the enemy? How do you feel about them now? Were you fighting mostly the NVA or the Viet Cong?:
Joe: Cong and then at the end it was hard core NVA…but quite frankly I said to myself, I’m not here to kill anybody. The only country I would’ve gone to war with that had killing in mind was the ROK army from South Korea…they were awesome soldiers. They knew what the communists did firsthand. But they killed guys, cut their ears off…they’d go through a village, if they got shot at the chief of the village had better reveal it otherwise they’re going to destroy the whole goddamned village. They did throw prisoners out of helicopters…rumor went around they were eating them. They had very brutal mindsets. …but getting back to your question, if I could help somebody, fine, but I wasn’t there to chalk up how many I could get or kill. I don’t know if I got anybody…I don’t know how many times I was in the crosshairs…you too probably
LOA: I know, that’s what keeps you up sometimes.
Joe: I didn’t like how rough some of the people were over there. The only people I trusted over there were the Montagnards, the indigenous people. They’re mountaineers, they wanted to be left alone. We treated them nice and so if we went through the village and the flag was up we were okay and if the flag was down it meant that Charlie’s around so look out.
LOA: That’s good enough sometimes, you know, we had a similar situation with the local warlord… He would give us some of his people to be security guards. They were brave and fast and loyal. They were really good. They were more of a gang really, that we could trust. They could move up the mountains really fast with just some magazines and an AK.
Joe:…I didn’t really hate the Vietnamese… you know, it wasn’t like the hate that the GIs had when we fought the Japanese because of what they did…really brutal…did you come away hating the Taliban?
LOA: Well, I’m wary, it’s like a reflective action. We were scared and aggressive at the same time I think, when certain things happened over there. And now, if I’m on the train or walking around the city and see someone who reminds me of them, I sometimes need to keep a distance. I absolutely realize it’s irrational but, it’s still a pretty fresh wound, I got back in 09 and…well, it’s getting better all the time.
Joe: Were you angry?
LOA: Oh yeah. Ha ha. I’m angry that I feel that way about them, and I’m angry at them. I’m angry at the whole thing.
Joe: I was like that too. I was tough to deal with, biting people’s heads off, my wife will tell you, I’d come back and had to readjust. We go through these episodes…writing the book helped me come to grips…and with LZ Lambeau and with the Packers helping, and our Native American brothers helping us…it was ironic but in a beautiful way….There were thousands of people and signs in the street, it was beautiful. Now, maybe you didn’t have much of that when you got back, but we had none of that.
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