MANCHESTER — An ongoing exhibit of some of the best-know photographs from the war in Vietnam at Manchester's Currier Museum of Art brought several Vietnam veterans and members of their families to an often-emotional viewing of photographs of the war they can't forget.
"This is an intense exhibit, it is hard to comprehend," said Bob Williams, a veteran who leads a monthly remembrance at Veterans Park of the 92,000 considered missing in action from U.S wars. "I don't care who it is, if you were there it is what happened and you (still) live with it."
Thirty-five photographs which appeared in newspapers and magazines around the world are featured in the exhibit.
They include some of the most widely remembered photographs of the war — a young girl fleeing a napalm attack on her village; a South Vietnamese general summarily executing a Viet Cong assassin with a pistol; the 1963 photograph of Buddist monk Thick Quam Duc's self-immolation, a photograph taken by Malcolm Browne of the Associated Press who died in a New Hampshire hospital last year; and a picture of a shell-shocked Marine staring straight ahead during the siege on the city of Hue during the 1968 Tet offensive, a picture that has come to be an iconic reflection of the psychological impact of the war.
"What better way is there to get a solid sense of what veterans have gone through," said Steve Konick of the Currier. "We were looking for photos that were iconic in this period but also visually striking, with artful composition."
The museum worked with Vietnam veterans as the photographs were being chosen. At the veterans' insistence, great attention was paid to detail, not only respecting the historic accuracy of what was shown in the picture, but also the details important to Vietnam veterans such as the location and the military units involved.
"It was designed to welcome veterans to the museum, but also to tell the truth about misrepresentations about the photographs," said Leah Fox, Currier's director of Interpretation. "It was really important to get it right."
Members of Rolling Thunder, a group formed to publicize the POW-MIA issue, conducted a "motorcycle meet-up," which brought veterans from across the region to view the exhibit.
Many veterans who have seen the exhibit since it opened in August have taken members of their families with them.
For many, the context given to the display of the pictures by Currier curators breaks down emotional walls that have kept veterans from fully sharing their experiences with their families.
Victoria Hayes toured the exhibit with her father, Laurence Kelly of Milton Mills.
With tears in her eyes, Hayes stood with her father and reflected on the pictures of the war in which her father was severely wounded physically in 1969, and who carries the psychological wounds of the war as he struggles with post traumatic stress disorder.
"It gave me a better understanding of what he went through that I didn't understand," Hayes said.
"I have not spoken about the harshness," Kelly said.
Jim Corvatis of Manchester, a former Marine who served in Vietnam, comforted many veterans and family members as they viewed the photographs.
"It's okay to cry," Corvatis said to one man for whom the experience of seeing the pictures brought an emotional response. "They tell us Marines cry inside (themselves), but finally I let it out and I cry outside."
An area of the exhibit has been set off for vets and civilians to contribute their own photos from the war and post their thoughts and reactions to the stark depictions in the exhibit. A Farmington couple, Dave and Gina Bonti, brought their daughter, a high school freshman, to see the exhibit.
Her brother served in Iraq in a unit in which 11 of his comrades were killed.
Gina Bonti sobbed seeing pictures of war, while reflecting on her son's experiences as a Marine in a recent war.
It was important, she said, for her daughter to see the exhibit to provide context to the history books that are cold and clinical in telling of the story of war.
"It isn't just the pictures, it is the people," she said. "The history books don't show the death, they teach dates and time lines. This is important for her to know."
"It was overwhelming," said Megan Bonti, 14. "I walk in and look at the pictures and finally see what really went on."
The exhibit "Visual Dispatches from Vietnam" continues at the Currier Museum, 150 Ash St., Manchester, through Veterans Day, Nov. 11.