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Vets surprised by the power and tragedy of 'Vietnam War' film

By SHAWNE K. WICKHAM
New Hampshire Sunday News

September 23. 2017 9:49PM
Steve Shurtleff was serving in an outpost in Vietnam in this photo taken in December 1967, about a month before the Tet Offensive. Shurtleff today lives in Penacook and is the New Hampshire House Democratic Leader. He says watching footage of Vietnam War protesters still bothers him. (Courtesy)
Help for Veterans after “The Vietnam War”
The Manchester VA Medical Center is holding drop-in sessions for veterans and their loved ones, allowing them to share their impressions and experiences after viewing the PBS documentary series, “The Vietnam War,” by award-winning filmmakers Ken Burns and Lynn Novick. Upcoming sessions:

• Friday, Sept. 29: 2 to 3:30 p.m. in the Solarium
• Friday, Oct. 6: 2 to 3:30 p.m. in the Training and Education Room

Other resources for veterans include comprehensive mental health services, individual and group therapies. Mental health walk-in care is available Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. For information, call (800) 892-8384 ext. 6487.

Vet centers offer Vietnam veterans a place to meet with other combat veterans in confidence. Readjustment counseling is also offered to eligible veterans, service members and their families. Visit: www.vetcenter.va.gov/Vet_Center_Services.asp or call 877-WAR-VETS (927-8387) to learn more.

Any veteran, whether enrolled for care with the VA or not, can find 24/7 support at the VA's Veterans Crisis Line. Call (800) 273-8255 and Press 1; chat online at VeteransCrisisLine.net/Chat; or text to 838255. Or walk in to Urgent Care at the Manchester VA, also open 24 hours a day.

New Hampshire veterans who served in Vietnam say the powerful PBS documentary by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick about that war is sometimes tough to watch. But they also hope it helps heal some wounds that have festered for 50 years.

Steve Shurtleff of Penacook, the House Democratic Leader, served with the Army's 552nd M.P. Company in Vietnam in 1967-68. He expects the most difficult part of "The Vietnam War" series for him is still to come, when it depicts the Tet Offensive in 1968.

He was there.

The film has brought memories to the surface, Shurtleff said. "I'm 70 now. This is 50 years ago," he said. "And it's surprising how some days it seems like yesterday."

When Vietnam veterans meet each other, he said, "We say, 'welcome home.'

"We do that because no one would say it to us."

Shurtleff hopes that because of the film, Vietnam veterans "finally get the recognition they deserve," he said. "Maybe people will recognize: You can hate the war but don't hate the warrior."

It still bothers Shurtleff to see the film's footage of anti-war demonstrations back home. "Those of us who served there felt they were protesting against those who served as well as the war itself," he said.

Jack Mallory of Penacook, who served in Vietnam with the Army's 11th Armored Cavalry in 1969-70, became one of those protesters. Four days after he returned from Vietnam, he was at an anti-war demonstration.

He had gone to Vietnam as "a Kennedy liberal, to make the world right," he said. But what he experienced there changed his view of the war.

"I realized that it was wrong, that they didn't want us there, that we were probably going to lose," he said. "That we had been lied to about a lot of things."

Mallory joined Vietnam Veterans Against the War.

Jack Mallory, who was a captain in the U.S. Army, is seen in a photo taken during basic training. Mallory served in Vietnam from 1969 to 1970 with the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment. After returning from the war, he joined Vietnam Veterans Against the War. (Courtesy)

Watching the Burns film, he's been struck anew by what a "tragedy" the war was, he said: "What a bunch of misunderstandings, lies, deception and ego on the part of American politicians and military officials as well."

He expected the combat scenes to be the most difficult to watch. Instead, it's the interviews with family members that he's found most disturbing. "I can imagine what my mom and dad were going through, waiting for me to come back, and me not hardly writing," he said. "It brings up a lot of stuff."

Last Friday, three Vietnam veterans - Ken Redding, Mike Uraine and Joe Murphy - stood ready at the VA Medical Center in Manchester to lead a "listening session" about the film for veterans and their families. But no one showed up.

Redding, 61, who lives in Manchester, is a peer support specialist for the VA. He said he wasn't disappointed that no one attended Friday's session; some combat vets have told him they want to see the entire 10-part series before they're ready to talk about it. (The series continues tonight on NHPTV.)

The VA is holding listening sessions on the next two Fridays for veterans and their families. 

Redding was 18 years old when he went to Vietnam with the Army's 25th Infantry in 1973. "I got a quick baptism into what life was about," he said.

He remembers one NCO used to say, "Young'un, don't be the last one to die over here."

Redding said he hopes the Burns/Novick film sparks some long-needed dialogue. "Because I think the more people discuss things, then you can get to the depth of it," he said. "Because out of anything, there's some good, and you just have to search it out."

Murphy, 68, who lives in Deerfield, was an Army M.P. and dog handler during the war. He's now a social worker at the VA, and works with the veterans justice program.

"I think it's great that this documentary is coming now at this point in history and time," Murphy said. "For the longest time, Vietnam veterans felt as though they didn't get the kind of recognition that they deserved - that we deserved - in coming home."

But that has been changing, he said, especially since the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Younger veterans from those wars often make a point of thanking the Vietnam vets for their service, he said. "To get that kind of recognition from someone who's half my age, who's also been in combat, is just very, very gratifying," he said. 

Murphy said for him, the Burns film is "a validation."

"It validates why I'm here as a clinician, working with my fellow veterans, because I'm paying back. There are 58,000 names on a wall in Washington, D.C., and every single one of those people died in my place."

Watching it hasn't been difficult for him, he said. "My war experience was very positive."

"I felt good about what I was doing and I was with a great group of men. And I still am very close with some of those guys even to this day, 45 years later."

The toughest thing was leaving his battle buddy, a German shepherd named Lance, behind when he left Vietnam. "I wanted to bring him back and they wouldn't let me," he said. "I used to feed him cheeseburgers. I used to read him my mail."

Mike Uraine, 67, of Manchester, served on a Navy LST (landing ship, tank) that brought Marines out of Vietnam on their way home. He's now a peer support specialist at the VA, serving on a mobile primary care team.

He said Vietnam veterans are aging and starting to need medical care, and many still struggle to deal with their war experiences. "A lot of guys went to ground when they got home and they weren't thanked and nothing was said to validate what they did," he said.

They raised families, threw themselves into careers. But now they're retiring and have time on their hands, he said. "And all these memories are rushing in that they kept suppressed all these years."

What Uraine hopes will come out of the Burns/Novick film is "that families and friends of people who served in Vietnam learn enough to be able to ask meaningful questions, couched in a way that will allow the veteran to give answers."

And there's something else: "I hope it makes people think about today's wars," he said. "It's one reason, frankly, that I'm almost as concerned about the younger vets seeing it and drawing inferences about how they ended up in their war. ..."

From left, Vietnam War veterans Michael Uraine, Joseph Murphy and Kenneth Redding have been talking with other veterans at the VA Medical Center about their reactions to the Ken Burns/Lynn Novick series, “The Vietnam War,” which continues airing this week on New Hampshire Public Television. (Courtesy photo VAMC)

A year ago, Shurtleff returned to Vietnam for the first time. "It was so surreal," he said.

He hired a car to take him to where he had been stationed, about 30 miles outside Saigon. "When I was there, it was just swamp and jungle. Now it's all businesses."

He left flowers for comrades who died there, and cut short his trip to return home. "I shouldn't have gone by myself," he said. "It was good to see Vietnam as it is now ... but it was kind of troubling at the same time."

Mallory was living in Santa Cruz, Calif., in the early 2000s when a delegation of North Vietnamese veterans visited; he accompanied them on a trip to the redwood forest.

As he spoke through an interpreter with a Vietnamese general, they realized "that he had been the commander of the North Vietnamese Army regiment that my 11th Armored Cav had mostly been in combat with the year that I was there."

The general told the others that back then, they had been enemies, shaking his fists at Mallory. Then he came over to Mallory and put his arm around his shoulders, saying, "But now: friends."

"This was one of the most moving moments of my life," Mallory said.

Murphy said he hopes the Burns/Novick film can be a teaching tool for those too young to remember Vietnam. "Those of us who experienced this ... have a responsibility, an obligation, to teach our children, so that they grow up to be better civic leaders," he said. "So that they don't end up having to go to war."

Redding, too, hopes the film serves a wider purpose. "Mr. Burns makes it a point to humanize the conflict and the decisions that are being made," he said. "So that when we have to cross that bridge, be it as a country, an individual or whatever ... let war be our last option."

"Amen," said Murphy.

swickham@unionleader.com


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