Vietnam Combat Vets Share Memories, Challenges

By Pete Zamplas

North Buncombe alumnus Butch Gudger tells of his lasting personal lessons from serving in Vietnam. Photo by Pete Zamplas.

A dozen Vietnam combat veterans told heartfelt stories of close grenade blasts and other lingering memories of that controversial war, their bonding, and how sharing their experiences is cathartic and helps them deal daily with severe trauma of a half-century.

Brothers Like These was performed Feb. 9. The N.C. Veterans Writing Alliance Foundation, Inc. and Blue Ridge Honor Flight (BRHF) sponsored the veterans’ live readings of prose and poetry. Others’ stories and photos were shown ahead, in video filmed at UNC-Asheville.

Flat Rock Playhouse (FRP) provided its Leiman Mainstage free. A similar show was late last year in Asheville Community Theatre.

Hendersonville City Councilman Jeff Miller launched HonorAir locally in 2006, and co-founded the nationwide HonorFlight Network that flies vets to D.C. for a day. “Thank you for your service, and (a belated) welcome home,” Miller told the vets.

The $20 suggested donation for attending Brothers Like These helps fund the Veterans Writing Alliance. The self-help creative group started five years ago, at the V.A. Hospital in Asheville. It meets monthly.

Group President Steve Henderson said 20 vets of various wars show up each time. They read their new writings of combat experience. “It keeps us busy, and helps us” cope, Henderson said. “And it keeps us together.”
Henderson is among two Buncombe County natives sharing their experiences in Brothers Like These. The 1968 Erwin grad was a football lineman, later JV head coach. He spoke, then North Buncombe alum Butch Gudger spoke.

David Rozell is from Old Fort in McDowell County. David Robinson is a lifelong (other than his Vietnam service) of Burnsville. “Hillbilly” was in Charlie Co., in 1970-71. He routinely speaks last, as his poem concludes with the program title “…brothers like these.” The other vets who spoke live in WNC or Upstate S.C.

Easing Trauma

Each public reading pumps up Henderson for about the next four days, he said. “I feel really good when we read , and people come up to you afterward” with some apologizing for anti-war/soldier zest of their youth. “But if we don’t do it (readings) for a while then the stress, anger and nightmares come back.”

Many Writing Alliance vets have been “workaholics,” Henderson said. He was City of Asheville sanitation operations manager. “We stayed busy,” avoiding dealing with PTSD. “It got worse once I retired, and had idle time.”
He now has outlets. Since “writing with those guys, if I’m having a bad day I can talk it out with them. It’s almost like serving again, in a platoon. We support each other.”

Brothers Like These moderator Allan Perkal, who served in Vietnam in 1967-68, was a Veterans Affairs readjustment counseling therapist for 24 years starting in 1982. He has helped vets deal with Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

PTSD is a lifelong challenge, but one more easily coped with after coming out with war experiences stifled for decades, Perkal said. “Most people took the uniform off, and didn’t want people to know they were a veteran. We didn’t deal with it. It’s denial.” He said too often, vets “self-medicate.”
A combat vet’s mood can swing suddenly, Perkal said. “If I stay in my house, bunkered in, I feel protected. But then I’m alone with my thoughts,” and dwelling on feelings can mount.

But Perkal said Vietnam vets by now are “more amenable to talk about what happened. To get outside of our own head. To get counseling, to share with the public.”

John Sitman told The Tribune he still deals with PTSD regularly, after serving in Vietnam with the Army in 1971-72. “I’m in that jungle every day” such as when sleepy yet insomnia-struck, or when dreaming.

He typically dreams of his walking “on point,” leading patrol in the jungle where enemy can pop out from a tunnel. His other combat memories include flying in a copter low over tree tops, “splattered” blood from wounded soldiers, their “screams” of pain, and transporting them to triage. He assured the wounded, “We’ll be there soon. Try to hold on.”

Henderson, in the Third Marine Division, was near the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) “in the bush three weeks” at a time, with a week in between to “heal from jungle rot.”

His recurring nightmare often vividly recreates a near-fatal moment. He slept as “a rocket landed right behind my tent. It was a dud, and didn’t go off. But it caught the tent on fire. Another Marine jerked me off the (bed) rack, and out of the tent.” He also dreams of Marines in his unit who died of combat. “I can still see those guys’ faces.”

Henderson is among many with health complications from Agent Orange, a toxic herbicide used to clear the jungle of trees to better spot the enemy. The nervous system and breathing are affected. Henderson said his limb numbness is worsening. He had a heart attack at age 50, and said his heart illness and diabetes is believed to be Agent Orange-exasperated.

Grenades, Mines, Ambushes

In Brothers Like These, several shared memories of combat “firestorms.” Ed Norris told of a grenade blast severely wounding a leg, and injuring his limbs and head during a foot patrol in 1967. The Marine said the blast seemed so close — as if merely “five to eight” feet away. Fellow soldiers carried him off, as his leg was broken. Ironically, they had to dodge U.S. artillery fire that helicopter squad leader Norris called in after he was hit.
Norris fought off “pain” with relief he survived, that “I’m still here.” Even today, feeling “secure” is at times a challenge.

David Rafoth was a sniper in Vietnam, in 1967-68. He told of a G.I. stepping into a rut and onto an enemy “booby trap,” trembling but staying still while awaiting instructions. The platoon leader observed the “trip wire is tight, and it’s still attached,” and urged the soldier on the mine to dash off of it with hopes it would not blow all of him up. Others backed away. Luckily, the mine was a dud and did not explode at all.

Rozell told of when Army explosives expert “Herc(ules)” unleashed C4 explosives with detonation caps, for the “mother of all overkill” in the jungle.

Sailor Mike Smith, also in Vietnam in 1967-70, was part of coast patrol of Vietnam. Tasks included “mine sweeping” of waters, and “assessing (potential) ambush sites.” It took “wisdom,” and determination to “keep going” day to day amidst hidden dangers.

Gudger, a Marine in 1969-70, was in “kill or be killed” mode. Climbing up an enemy trail, sweaty “terror” gripped him once gunfire was exchanged. Yet after checking a dead enemy soldier’s family photos, Gudger concluded that man was “not an animal, or a machine, or a monster. This was a person — just like me.”

The enemy’s Tet Offensive in the first half of 1968 changed the course of the war. It was the welcome for Ed Spangler, in his 1968-9 stint in ’Nam. He saw much around him “blown apart.”

John Hoffman in a video ahead of the show called Tet “their ‘shock and awe.’ They just leveled everything, every day.” They used Soviet artillery, including shoulder-held missile launchers popular among terrorists in Afghanistan and Iraq today.

Since much relied on detecting heat of U.S. vehicles, Hoffman’s helicopter flew below 1,000 feet where “there were many other heat signatures” to confuse those sensors.

Political Hindrance

A tank is among images on the FRP screen behind Vietnam veterans in the Brothers Like These show. The four last vets to speak are, L-R: David Rafoth, Ed Norris, David Robinson, and James Watts. Photo by Pete Zamplas.

Frustrations abounded, for U.S. combatants in Vietnam. For much of the war “we won the battles. The politicians lost the war” such as by compromising on the number of troops deployed, twins Tom and John Sitman each told The Tribune. Further, the U.S. bombed North Vietnam in Operation Rolling Thunder in 1965-68, but halted that in a political olive branch to try to ignite peace talks.

“We had crazy rules” near front lines, Henderson told The Tribune. “You can’t fire, unless fired upon. Sometimes you can’t go across the DMZ (into North Vietnam itself), or the follow enemy into Cambodia,” Henderson said. “It’s so aggravating, to get them on the run. Then you to have stop, at an imaginary (border) point.”

Betrayed, Distrustful

Vietnam vets are inherently distrustful due to negative reaction when they returned home for fear of getting “betrayed” and “burned again,” Perkal explained. “You can’t get close, into intimate relationships.”

He said a common view is “‘I felt abandoned. I served, and put my life on the line. You blamed the warrior for the war. I came home, and I was the enemy. They called us names (‘baby killers’ as if the My Lai Massacre in ’68 was common). I thought the enemy was overseas.’”

Dutifully fighting “doesn’t mean we were for the war,” Henderson said. He suggests peace marchers ease up on soldiers, and instead “protest the people who send people to war.”

Many vets went off to Vietnam when there was support or at least mixed view of the U.S. fight against communism’s potential “domino effect” that might even sweep the economic jewel of Japan.

But when they returned, many people their age were ranting against the war — and those who fought it. “I was spit on” by hippies in big city airports, Robinson said, as he returned home in uniform. He was much more welcome back in more conservative Burnsville, but said he even got a few frowns there.

“Baby killers!” was the most infuriating accusation, Robinson said. “I wanted to go hide, like a turtle in its shell.” Perkal said many anti-war protestors wrongly presume the “My Lai Massacre” of nearly 500 unarmed South Vietnamese villagers in 1968, led by Lt. William Calley, was done by many other units.

Mike Smith tells his story at the podium, as a photo of him is shown on the big screen. He was in Navy coastal patrol and mine sweeping. Other Vietnam vets somberly listen. Sitting at left are Writing Alliance Pres. Steve Henderson, and John Sitman. Photo by Pete Zamplas.

A complicating dimension of danger and stress that could trigger such rage against civilians was how many South Vietnamese friendly to Americans by day were secretly allies of Viet Cong or even enemy combatants at night.
South Vietnamese soldiers wanted Americans to fight for their homeland, many vets have said. “They were the sorriest soldiers,” and often fled battles, Henderson said.

Educating Youths

When Henderson drove a bus for Fairview Elementary, a handful of students found out he was a vet and asked for war stories. They honored Henderson and his family with plays, while in fifth then sixth grade in Cane Creek Middle.

They won first in the state at their level for the past two years, in Destination Imagination contests. Fairview teacher Melissa Spruill is their coach. Their My Stories also won a global public service Torch award.

They youths go by Kids Like These 4 Vets. Their second winning play is Escape and Evasion, about pilots shot down. Their portable set has a mini Hanoi Hilton POW camp. Agent Orange was a sub-topic.

Henderson is pleased some Warren Wilson freshmen last year after hearing three ‘Nam vets speak each “wrote their year-end thesis on a veteran. It was quite moving.”

Soon the next Brothers Like These performance in Pack Memorial Library in Asheville will likely expand from its usual half-dozen readers to several more, Henderson said.

Meanwhile, HonorFlight is helping arrange Vietnam vets speaking in high schools in Buncombe and Henderson counties, while Christ School plans a play in May about Vietnam vets.

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