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A Million Vietnam Wars

March 29th is National Vietnam Veterans Day, and this post explores the variety of experiences in Vietnam showcased by Veterans History Project collections.

From ticker tape parades to protests, American citizens have both supported and condemned their country’s military involvement in various conflicts. Perhaps no conflict captures this vacillation more than U.S. involvement in the war in Vietnam.

The Vietnam War polarized the country, engendering intense, and at times violent, emotions. While reading, listening, and learning about the Vietnam veterans within our Veterans History Project (VHP) collection, I thought back to a term I had learned while studying psychology. Cognitive dissonance is the state of having inconsistent thoughts, beliefs and attitudes. Surely, that is what this war caused in minds of the American people. In particular, those individuals waiting on the draft were often keenly aware that they might be asked to participate in a war they did not personally support.

Fast forward to the 1980s: the draft has long since expired. With its dissolution, much of the misunderstanding and overall ill will towards the men and women who participated in the war in Vietnam has likewise dissolved. A memorial largely designed in 1981 by Maya Lin now honors Vietnam veterans. As it stands today, the memorial consists of three parts: The Three Soldiers; The Vietnam Women’s Memorial; and lastly, the iconic “rift in the earth” creating a 246 feet and 8 inch black reflective wall culminating a long salute to those 58,259 men and 8 women lost during this conflict. The Vietnam War memorial is one of the most powerful monuments in Washington D.C. Its polished black granite shows visitors their face amongst the names, asking them to imagine what the war meant in their lives.

How would you react, had you been asked to fight in Vietnam? Would you search for ways to avoid the draft, or would you fight for what you believe is right, knowing things will never be the same?

From 1964-1973, nearly three million U.S. combat troops served in the Republic of Vietnam; the last of whom left on this day in 1972. For this reason, today is designated as National Vietnam Veterans Day, a day that commemorates the sacrifices of Vietnam veterans and their families 47 years after the last troops came home.

William Barner and wife lying near letters.

William Barner and wife lying near letters. William Maxwell Barner, III Collection, Veterans History Project, AFC2001/001/89316.

In reviewing the opinion of veterans within the Veterans History Project collection, I found that each veteran reacted somewhat differently to the idea of being drafted. In April of 1966, William “Billy” Barner had gotten his dream job at General Motors and had just married his dream girl. Just five months later, after being told he would not be drafted for health reasons, he received notice that he was to be inducted into the U.S. Army. Leaving his sobbing bride behind, Barner loaded onto a bus with drill sergeants yelling repeatedly, “You’re going to Vietnam and you will die.” As reality started to set in, Barner decided he was going to do everything he could to stay alive

and not perish in a war that he didn’t even understand.

Like many deployed soldiers, Barner kept up with his wife Sandy via letters and postcards. In addition to their correspondence, Sandy looked to the news media to learn what was happening in Vietnam.

The constant news updates Americans received in the late part of the 1960s to the early 1970s ultimately played a huge role in shaping the public’s overall opinion of the Vietnam War. The Tet offensive in January of 1968 was a turning point for public opinion. The seemingly unbiased media presented the Tet offensive as an American defeat, rather than the major American victory those U.S. soldiers like Lt. General Julius Becton knew it to be.

A quote and screenshot from Julius Becton’s oral history interview. Julius Wesley Becton, Jr. Collection, Veterans History Project, Library of Congress, AFC2001/001/75519.

 

Operating Room Corpsmen and Ronnie Knox near An Khe

Operating Room Corpsmen and Ronnie Knox near An Khe. Rhona Marie Knox Prescott Collection, Veterans History Project, AFC2001/001/01146.

Some individuals volunteered to serve in Vietnam, including the thousands of brave women who opted to use their medical skills in war. Rhona Marie Knox Prescott served as an emergency surgical nurse in country. After a particularly exhausting day, Prescott missed her call for an emergency surgical flight. Her colleague and friend, Eleanor Grace Alexander saw this opportunity to demonstrate her abilities. Alexander grabbed her friend’s jacket and flew into the battle zone where she worked diligently, aiding those she could. Prescott was happy her friend had taken the opening–until fate stepped in.

Poem: “What? Why?”. Rhona Marie Knox Prescott Collection, Veterans History Project, AFC2001/001/01146.

On her return flight, Alexander’s aircraft crashed into a mountain in heavy rain and killed all onboard. For years, Prescott struggled with survivor’s guilt. Although shattered by the loss of her friend, her writing and service to others have allowed her to let the light in her life continue to shine through the cracks. As one of the eight women on “the Wall,”Alexander’s name can be found on Panel 31E, Row 8.

 

Like Prescott, Sammy L. Davis felt it was his patriotic and familial duty to enter military service during the war in Vietnam. Sharing a name with a member of the Rat Pack earned him his fair share of ribbing from his battle buddies, but the laughter stopped on November 18, 1967. Falling under heavy mortar and machine gun fire from the National Liberation Front, Davis operated a machine gun to give his comrades cover. Despite being wounded several time, Davis ignored warnings to take cover. Instead, he took over the unit’s burning howitzer to fire several shells himself. When the shells ran out, he fired nearby propaganda pamphlets to confuse the enemy. Though he did not know how to swim, a severely injured Davis crossed a river on a mattress to rescue three wounded American soldiers before returning to the fight. One year later, he was awarded the Medal of Honor from President Lyndon B. Johnson. The footage from that day as well as Davis’s citation were used as source materials for the epic comedy-drama “Forrest Gump.”

 

Screenshot from Sammy L. Davis interview. Sammy L. Davis Collection, Veterans History Project, AFC2001/001/89654.

Although sometimes teased today by his battle buddies for his name and for being “the real Forrest Gump,” Davis recognizes that they are the reason he was there and the reason he survived.

“It sounds silly to say I had to go to war to learn what real love is. I didn’t go to war to kill people. The reason we fought so hard was because we were all we had. We became brothers and we still are today,” said Davis.

After the hardships they faced in Vietnam, many of these veterans returned home to waves of resentment. Some were spat on. Most lost battle buddies. Though many Vietnam veterans chose to keep their service experiences to themselves, they nonetheless developed nuanced personal perspectives on their time in the service and the war itself.

 

Accordingly, during his Veterans History Project interview, Professor Thomas Hagel remarked, “There are millions of Vietnam Wars. If you were a clerk typist stationed in Saigon [or] up on the DMZ, or some other unit with some other type of job, your Vietnam War would be totally different from ours. And that’s important to tell… It gives a more complete, realistic picture of that experience. [That’s] the value of this project (VHP)”

The Veterans History Project encourages you to go a step beyond welcoming Vietnam veterans home and thanking them for their service. Take time today to get to know the Vietnam veterans in your life and community. Ask them about their experiences. By listening to their stories, you honor them, their service, and those they lost.

 

 

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