Gary Warren tells a story about serving in Vietnam. He was in the Naval Seabees stationed in Danang 1967 to ’68. He said that once or twice a week they would carry away scrap material from their carpentry shop to dump it, and the Vietnamese locals would gather around to scavenge it. On one trip, a man approached Warren wanting to trade for the whole load of lumber scraps.
“What he wanted to trade me was his daughter,” he said.
Jimmie Haley, U.S. Navy, Mekong Delta 1969-70, was on an attack troop carrier. Twelve boats would file down the river, carrying 9th Infantry army from place to place at a top speed of 6 knots.
“All of a sudden a B-40 rocket, a ball of fire, comes flying out of the bushes,” he said, and all the boats would open fire on both sides.
A helicopter would be sent to get a body count. They would hear that maybe five were killed.
“Nobody knew who shot what,” he said.
Each of handful of veterans gathered at the Vietnam Veterans of America Southeast Texas Chapter 292 last week had stories about his experiences in Vietnam, some hair-raising, some just odd. But each opened a window on Americans “young and dumb” in an extraordinary situation with problems and stresses no training could have prepared them for.
The chapter is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year with a Welcome Home, Brother weekend Sept. 21 and 22, in cooperation with the city of Beaumont.
The event will also serve as a fundraiser for the Texas Capitol Vietnam Veterans Monument, a larger-than-life bronze sculpture to occupy a place of honor on the lawn of the Capitol in Austin.
Kerwin Stone, U.S. Air Force, 1972-73, the president of the chapter, said it looks as though this fundraiser will be the one to push the funds over the top and send the project to casting.
But the primary focus of the weekend is to give Vietnam veterans something Chapter 292 feels they’ve never had: a proper welcome home.
When these veterans came back to the states, they weren’t made to feel appreciated.
Ray Hardy, U.S. Army, 1969-70, said he remembers the look in a woman’s face as he was walking through an airport in uniform. She seemed afraid and pulled her young daughter out of the way.
“I guess she thought I was going to bite her,” he said.
“The perception was that we were all drug-crazed baby killers,” Stone said.
In that volatile social and political climate, most found it was better to put that very recent chapter of their lives away.
“I got such a cold slap-in-the-face reception when I got home,” Hardy said, “I just put it in a closet and never mentioned it.”
“Conversations back then ... you just clam up, don’t say anything,” Stone said. “Let it pass, it doesn’t matter.”
That common reaction to a cold reception may be one reason Vietnam veterans groups didn’t start popping up in Texas until the mid-1980s, and a reason that these vets say many who served in Vietnam have never opened that “closet.”
Hardy said when he finally got involved with the veterans group, he started wearing a Vietnam veterans hat, and his father-in-law said he didn't know that Hardy was in Vietnam. Hardy had been married to the man's daughter for 25 years.
Stone said that when the traveling wall memorial was at Parkdale Mall a few years ago, he drove there and just sat in his car and looked from a distance, and he wondered how many others there were like him.
These four men agree that what’s comforting about spending time with other Vietnam veterans is that they share a common experience, are familiar with some of the same places, know things that only those who experienced it would know, and one doesn’t have to explain anything, doesn’t even have to talk about it.
Warren put off joining the vets group for years. Now he says, “You find friends here you don’t find anywhere else. Get in trouble, these guys have your back.
The chapter members hope the families of those Southeast Texans who were listed as killed or missing in action will come to the Welcome Home, Brother weekend. They also want to reach out to other Vietnam-era veterans, not just the ones who set foot in Vietnam.
“We’re not an in-country Vietnam vets organization,” Stone said. “People forget there was a cold war going on at the time.”
“They’re welcome; we don’t care how they served,” Warren said.
The event begins with the unveiling of a maquette of the monument at the Art Museum of Southeast Texas in Beaumont on Monday, Sept. 17. The ceremonies take place Friday and Saturday, Sept. 21 and 22 in various locations in Beaumont. Everyone is welcome.
For more information, call Barbara Otto, assistant to the mayor, at 880-3736, or e-mail her at email@example.com.
To search for friends or relatives on The Virtual Wall Vietnam Veterans Memorial click here.