Vietnam veterans are honored, and a documentary tries to explain what happened and why

  • Dick Berube of Franklin served in Vietnam in 1968 and ’69. He was in the Army, part of an artillery unit, and now he volunteers at the New Hampshire Veterans Home several times a week. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Vietnam veteran Jim Colby of Gilford was one of many honored by the Daughters of the American Revolution on Monday, Sept. 18, 2017, at the New Hampshire Veterans Home in Tilton. Colby served in Vietnam from 1969 to 1970. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • New Hampshire Veterans Home recreation staffer Chuck Lewis points out some of the fallen Vietnam veterans to fellow veteran David Clark, who served from 1965 to 1973, after the ceremony Monday, Sept. 18, 2017. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

Monitor columnist
Published: 9/18/2017 11:53:56 PM

Few historical events make Americans squirm like the Vietnam War.

It split our country and ended our aura of invincibility. It led to the shooting deaths of four students who were protesting the war at Kent State University in Ohio.

It caused returning veterans to change their uniforms in airport bathrooms, created rioting at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, fueled the Counterculture era and Woodstock festival, and shone a light of mistrust on our leaders in Washington, D.C.

Since then, we’ve tried to come to grips with the why and the what, helped along by recent, long-overdue tributes to those who fought and died, and researched material that has sought to make sense of the blood spilled by the 58,000 Americans who were killed.

And both intersected here the past two days, with the start Sunday of New Hampshire resident Ken Burns’s 10-part series called The Vietnam War, and Monday’s ceremony at the New Hampshire Veterans Home in Tilton honoring “military personnel from our state ... who perished while on active duty in Vietnam.”

Here’s where the squirming surfaced. Dick Berube of Franklin served in Vietnam in 1968 and ’69. He was in the Army, part of an artillery unit, and now he volunteers at the Veterans Home several times a week.

I spoke to him as we entered the large greeting room where the tribute was being held, where several boards with names of the dead and their dog tags were shown, and where bumper stickers reminding civilians to remember Vietnam veterans were available for free.

I asked Berube if he’d seen the first segment of Burns’s documentary, shown the night before.

“I didn’t want to watch it,” Berube told me. “We were not too well-respected when we got home.”

Later, Berube agreed to reveal his feelings in an interview that had squirm written all over it.

He was drafted at 23, and he told me that at the time he “didn’t know a lot.”

“We were told the reason we were fighting was because Vietnam would be used as a stepping stone for other countries to be taken over by Communism. We had to stop it before it was too late,” Berube said. “That was all over the news, and that’s all we heard.”

The mood back home, of course, shifted as the 1960s moved on. Media people and outlets like Walter Cronkite and the New York Times began revealing the futility and horrors of the war, and the Woodstock Generation began to dig in. The war was looked at very differently, despite the endless examples of bravery and camaraderie contained in all wars.

Soon, soldiers like Berube began to lose friends there. Soon, their opinions on why we were there began to change. Soon, they’d be home, greeted by indifference and scorn.

“We got home and there was no respect from anyone,” Berube recalled. “I had friends who died and I felt bad for them. Going over there and seeing what was going on, the South Vietnamese did not support us.”

By now, Berube was rolling with emotion and conviction, and he wasn’t about to cut our interview short.

“It was about money,” Berube told me. “It was a come-on by the government to help defense-backed industries get more money. They didn’t care who they sent over there.”

I asked Berube what he thought about Monday’s event, which thanked men like himself.

“Nice,” he said. “It was a long time coming.”

There was that squirm again, those uncomfortable feelings, the bitterness that stemmed from being underappreciated, the conflict that evolved as a nation tried to differentiate between who was patriotic and who was showing disrespect.

The Vietnam War has a way of doing that, of keeping the history books from issuing a complete sense of clarity.

Len Stuart, the program information officer at the Veterans Home, told me that about 50 veterans from the Vietnam War live there. Maybe two dozen showed up Monday, and I wondered why.

“Some have dementia and couldn’t make it,” Stuart told me. “Some just don’t want to come.”

Here, I read between the lines. I assumed the war’s controversy kept some veterans away.

“People who have all their faculties and served, I was surprised some of them didn’t come today,” Stuart told me. “I’m sure they had their reasons.”

I spoke in the parking lot to Vietnam veteran Ray Goulet of Manchester, the Chapter 41 president of the Vietnam Veterans of America. He saw Burns’s movie and said, “It was fantastic. A lot went into it that I don’t think people knew.”

He said he understood why Berube preferred not to watch, telling me, “We all carried demons home, and it depends on how you want to work with it.”

Back inside, Maj. Gen. William Reddel, the adjutant general of the New Hampshire National Guard, missed the first installment of Burns’s documentary. He was instead coordinating the state’s relief effort in response to the country’s recent hurricane activity.

But he said he’d heard it was “outstanding.”

“My hope is it will help heal the nation and educate the nation,” Reddel said. “Ken Burns went to great lengths to show details of what happened during the war. He went to veterans to ask them if what he had was accurate, and no one has ever done that before.”

Asked what he thought about our role in Vietnam, our reason for being there, the general, I sensed, squirmed a tad, saying, “You salute smartly and execute the mission. My opinion won’t add any value.”

Earlier, I asked Berube if he might start watching Burns’s documentary. There’s still plenty of episodes left to get on board.

“Probably not, but I haven’t decided yet,” Berube told me. “I don’t think it will be something I decide until the last minute. I’ve watched other movies about it, but it hurts. I have to be in the right mood.”

(Ray Duckler can be reached at 369-3304, or on Twitter @rayduckler.)

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