Vietnam veterans share their experiences

By Luke Sprague

October 28, 2017

I recently moderated a discussion between a group of Vietnam veterans and the public about Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s newly released The Vietnam War film.

The Latah County Historical Society organized the event and Northwest Public Television station provided support. As a member of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, I encouraged local Vietnam veterans to get involved in the discussion. Some veterans wanted to participate others did not. 

The public and veterans met at the American Legion Cabin in Moscow, Idaho, on September 27, October 11, and October 25, 2017.

The Vietnam veteran’s panel included Ralph Lehman, Ralph Holick, George Stockton, Dareld Hazeltine, Andrew Smith, Andy Johansen, Joe Overstreet, Tom Anderson, Sam Duncan, Bob Wakefield, and Bob Chenoweth. Numerous Vietnam veterans in the audience also participated actively in the dialogue.

As planned, the first night centered on film episodes one thru three, the second-night episodes four thru seven, and the last night episodes eight thru ten.

I moderated the last two nights.

As the son of a Vietnam era veteran, and a veteran myself, I jumped at the opportunity to referee the discussions that were sure to be lively.

By training, I am also a military historian, but the questions I asked were anything but what you’d expect from a dry discussion about tactics and strategy.

Instead, the goal was to focus on the first-hand experiences of the veterans and to try not to veer off into the political or questions of right and wrong.

So, I chose to ask questions that I thought as a veteran might invite a deeper response from the Vietnam veterans. I was not trying to provoke the panel of veterans but instead to try to evoke a response so that the public could understand where the veterans were coming from emotionally and mentally.

The conversation did elicit an emotional response from both the veterans and the audience on the second night. On the third night, time constraints cut short an intense discussion regarding the motives of generals in the United States Army.

October 25, 2017, Vietnam discussion group

Here I recall my questions and the veteran’s answers from the second and third night.

Question to the panel:
What was your experience with Agent Orange?

One veteran answered that he had sprayed Agent Orange out of a backpack and that at times he had been soaked with the stuff. He went on to say that, he was suffering from many abnormal cancers likely caused by Agent Orange. This veteran worked in a chemical company, a United States Army unit that employed chemicals in warfare.

Another veteran stated that he commanded a number of swift boats that United States aircraft doused with Agent Orange. Similarly, servicemen in helicopters with doors open sometimes got soaked with Agent Orange.

One veteran noted, setting aside the carcinogenic effects of Agent Orange, it did quite a job on destroying the triple canopy jungle, a benefit for the men fighting on the ground. 

Question to the panel:
What was your experience of race relations while serving in Vietnam?

One veteran remarked that he had donated blood to a white American who had a t-shirt with “KKK” lettering on it and later received thank you notes from that soldier’s family because his African American blood saved the white American with a “KKK” t-shirt. In the audience, a Nez Perce Vietnam veteran recalled that because he was in the “rear with the gear,” that more racism existed on his Air Force Base than those units that served closer to combat action.

A former commander of troops in Vietnam stated that once one got down range and into combat that everyone was looking out for everyone else regardless of race. It seemed to be the consensus of the group that the further away one served from actual combat the more likely you had time to be a racist. 

Question to the panel:
What specific experiences do you remember about your interactions with local Vietnamese?

One veteran said that he had regular contact with a couple different ethnic groups, not just Vietnamese. Another mentioned that he visited the home of an ARVN Officer and he described the interior of the house and the experience.

In a different vein, another veteran spoke about his stint as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam and his experiences learning about the Vietnamese people. For the most part, it sounded like these servicemen’s casual interactions with the local Vietnamese people was rather limited. 

The Vietnam War film patch provided by Northwest Public Television

Question to the panel:
What do you remember about your experience when you first returned to the United States following your tour in Vietnam?

A large number of the veterans stated that anti-war protesters spat on or attacked them. One even said that he had to stop one of his men from beating up an anti-war protester after they got in his face. Substantial numbers of the veterans retold the story of changing into civilian clothes immediately after leaving the airport.

One veteran stated that he did get a respectful welcome as an entire ship of five thousand sailors returned to their homeport and their families were there to greet them.

Overall, the veterans resented the hostile treatment they received on their return to the United States. This issue came up multiple times, when the veterans explained that they understood people’s right to disagree and protest the war, but that those who served did not deserve these indignities. 

Question to the panel:
After coming home and being home for a while, did you participate in the anti-war movement?

One veteran did volunteer that he did protest the war and sought to defund the war. This did appear to provoke some consternation among the fellow veterans. However, then the veteran sitting next to him said that he wished he had protested and that because he got on with his life he did not stop to protest and later regretted it. 

Question to the panel:
On April 30, 1975, how did the fall of South Vietnam affect you?

Most of the veterans said that the fall of South Vietnam really blindsided them, or caught them off guard, a kind of shock. However, a few of them couched this with the proviso that most veterans who had served over in Vietnam knew that things were not going to result in a United States victory over North Vietnam. So, it appears that the majority of the veterans knew something like this would happen someday, but when it happened it came as a severe shock. 

All in all, this debate was heartrending and emotional. What questions did The Vietnam War film evoke for you?

Luke Sprague is a public historian at HistoryMint and manages the nominations to the National Register of Historical Places for Latah County, Idaho. To find about more about what he does during his working hours click here. 

Thumbnail image of Luke Sprague