50 years later, Vietnam War still weighs heavily on Steve Shurtleff

  • Rep. Steve Shurtleff poses for portrait outside the State House on Wednesday. The state representative recently returned from a trip to Vietnam. ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff

  • Rep. Steve Shurtleff poses for portrait in the Representative’s Hall gallery at the State House on Wednesday. ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff

  • Rep. Steve Shurtleff poses for portrait in the Representative’s Hall gallery at the State House on Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff)

  • An alternatively processed photo of Steve Shurtleff, taken by a friend, holds special meaning to Shurtleff. Courtesy of Steve Shurtleff

  • Steve Shurtleff stands next to his in-ground bunk that he shared with a roommate at Sicily I. Courtesy of Steve Shurtleff

  • Terry Oman sits next to the in-ground bunk he shared with Steve Shurtleff at Sicily I. (Courtesy of Steve Shurtleff)

  • A Viet Cong flag is seen mounted on the inside cover of Steve Shurtleff’s photo album. (Courtesy of Steve Shurtleff)

  • An armored personnel carrier shares a road with water buffalo. (Courtesy of Steve Shurtleff)

Monitor staff
Published: 1/13/2017 11:03:51 PM

The small, square photo is overexposed. The man pictured appears as a black silhouette against a bright, white sky. A backpack and the tip of a gun slung over his shoulder are his only defining features.

When he thinks of Vietnam, Steve Shurtleff often flips to this image of himself at the back of a worn photo album.

“It’s kind of distorted and the whole year was kind of distorted,” he said.

The city councilor returned to Vietnam last fall for the first time in almost 50 years in search of closure after the war. Instead, the visit brought back memories and anxieties from the year he spent as a military policeman stationed outside Saigon, now Ho Chi Minh City.

Shortly after getting home, Shurtleff saw a counselor and was diagnosed with a form of post traumatic stress disorder.

“Going back just opened up those wounds,” he said. “I am nine months shy of 70, and it’s never too late to get help.”

The Vietnam War ended more than 40 years ago. But an estimated 271,000 war-zone veterans still experience some post traumatic stress disorder, according to a study published in JAMA Psychiatry two years ago. Shurtleff spoke about his experience to the Monitor and on New Hampshire Public Radio this week in the hope he will inspire others to seek out the help they may need.

Now the state’s top House Democrat, Shurtleff enlisted in the U.S. Army’s Military Police Corps right after graduating from Bishop Brady High School in 1966.

A year later he was sent to Vietnam, where his youthful sense of invincibility was tested as he escorted convoys and worked roadside checkpoints.

He saw his tent-mate step off the road and onto a “bouncing betty” mine that exploded, maiming his lower body.

Shurtleff drove over a landmine in his Jeep, but it was buried too deep in the ground to detonate. He only learned about the danger hours later, when a member of the explosives division told him he probably should have been dead.

His year in the country, he emphasizes, was not that bad. “People had it a lot tougher than I did.”

Photos from that time show a strong, thin man with a full head of blond hair and an air of confidence. Shurtleff has since filled out, and now has a thick, graying mustache.

Known around the State House for his level head, good-nature and cheery demeanor, he doesn’t talk about the war often with colleagues.

But when he came back from Vietnam last year, some friends noticed he seemed upset.

Speaking about the trip this week, Shurtleff at times had difficulty putting his emotions into words, simply saying he had felt sad.

The jungle and open fields, where he had lived during the war for months beneath a green, canvas tent, were gone – paved over to make way for restaurants, parking lots and auto-shops. No sign or memorial marked the base where he had been stationed or the neighboring “widow’s village,” where wives of fallen South Vietnamese soldiers had lived. In that village he had seen bodies being loaded into trucks after the Tet Offensive.

Shurtleff laid the bouquet of yellow flowers he had brought on top of a grassy curb at the edge of a restaurant parking lot. The driver he had hired snapped a photo. In it Shurtleff is smiling, but all he felt was sad.

“All these people died here and there’s nothing,” he said. “To me it’s like a sacred place.”

Shurtleff went to Vietnam alone after touring China on a legislative trip. His visit coincided with the 40th anniversary of Vietnamese reunification. Banners picturing the country’s communist revolutionary leader Ho Chi Minh hung throughout the city.

“All of a sudden I felt like I did 50 years ago,” said Shurtleff, who cut his visit short by three days. “I found myself having those same feelings of anxiety, like I really want to leave. Am I going to be able to get out?”

In 1968, Shurtleff returned home from the war amid demonstrations across the U.S. He was told to change out of his uniform and into civilian clothes before touching down, to avoid nasty comments. The protests and anti-veteran sentiment weighed on him. He determined future veterans wouldn’t face the same lack of appreciation.

Shurtleff still says “welcome home” to each new Vietnam veteran he meets. It’s the phrase he wants written on his gravestone, a nod to his Catholic faith and his service.

“Nobody else ever welcomed us home,” he said.

The war pushed him into public service. When he retired from the U.S. Marshals in 2000 he ran for state representative, then city council. The first bill he introduced in the New Hampshire House was one to give free state university tuition to veterans’ children.

“Fifty-eight thousand died,” he said. “I appreciate the fact I came back, and I try to do something good. I am Catholic, maybe it’s penance.”

Over time, his view on Vietnam changed. He now sees the war as a “horrible mistake,” but it’s still a part of the history that’s shaped his life.

Every time Shurtleff says the Pledge of Allegiance with his hand over his heart, he reaches his index finger up to his jacket lapel, to touch the pin that commemorates the veterans of Vietnam.

“It’s just to remind me who I am serving now,” he said, “and who I am serving that is not with us.”

(Allie Morris can be reached at 369-3307 or amorris@cmonitor.com.)




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