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Veterans’ memories stirred by Vietnam War documentary

The film reflected a negative perspective of the war that has only strengthened with time, one local veteran said
By Jack Heffernan

The Daily Astorian

Published on October 26, 2017 9:29AM

Last changed on October 27, 2017 7:14AM

A visitor touches a name on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.

AP Photo/Molly Riley

A visitor touches a name on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.

Sitting at his desk in a small Alderbrook home, Phil Hertel peered through his three pages of handwritten notes as a “A Bright Shining Lie” — a Pulitzer Prize-winning book in which author Neil Sheehan takes Vietnam-era policy makers to task — lay on a dinner table just a few feet behind him.

Hertel, an Army veteran of the Vietnam War, was explaining — using the notes — his thoughts on Ken Burns’ recently released television documentary about the conflict.

The film reflected a negative perspective of the war that has only strengthened with time, Hertel said.

“I knew we didn’t belong there, but I couldn’t articulate it at the time like I can now,” he said. “It confirmed and detailed and provided one or two facts that I had not already gained from the study from the rest of my life or the mild interest in the Vietnam experience.”

Hertel has become increasingly disillusioned with the U.S. military over the course of his life. Since moving to Astoria 10 years ago, though, he has connected with other local veterans and helped connect them with career resources. He and a fellow veteran spend 4 to 5 hours each Saturday night “saving the world” by discussing hot-button issues.

Roughly 13 million people viewed the first episode of the 18-hour Burns documentary. A decade of research and interviews went into the project, which covers the most important event since World War II, Burns said in a USA Today interview.

“This war didn’t turn out well for Americans and we did ignore it and then, sort of, clung desperately to some fairly superficial facts,” Burns said.

‘I would’ve moved to Canada’

Hertel worked at a Ford Motor Co. plant in Louisville, Kentucky, in the 1960s. Weary of dodging the draft by attending college classes and working, he decided to sign up for a two-year enlistment.

At 20 years old, he thought he might have been blackballed economically had he decided to move to another country. Rather, after serving just two years, he figured he could reap some of the benefits afforded to veterans through the GI Bill.

“I knew we had no business being in Vietnam,” he said. “If I had done what I thought was the right thing to do, I would’ve moved to Canada.”

In his year overseas from 1968 to 1969, Hertel served as an enlisted soldier, conducting meteorological surveys in a camp that also housed much of the army’s leadership. Because commanding officers were present, the camp was often shelled.

But Hertel remembers his time in the camp fondly. Following relatively short work days, he spent much of his time reading, writing, listening to music and exchanging letters with his new wife.

“Overall, I felt like it was a pretty good year,” he said. “It was just, like, very relaxing.”

When his tour ended, so too did his mental involvement in the conflict — at least for the next four decades.

Greeted by gunfire

Another local veteran, on the other hand, participated in anti-war activism as soon as he returned home.

Ben Hunt ran into legal trouble in the 1960s, and a judge presented two options: jail or the military. Opting for the latter, Hunt joined the army in 1966.

He had what he described as a “cushy job” at a base in Louisiana and could have remained there for his three-year enlistment. Instead, he decided that he wanted to experience the war for himself. He deployed in 1968 as a mechanic, helicopter door gunner and supply sergeant.

Hunt spent his first night in Vietnam — Jan. 31, 1968 — in Bien Hoa. He was greeted within hours of his arrival by gunfire — the Tet Offensive had just launched.

“Arriving there was a total shock,” he said.

Following three sleep-deprived nights, the attack temporarily stopped. Hunt soon transferred to a camp north of Bien Hoa. For the rest of the year, he tried to avoid becoming what both he and Hertel called a “grunt” — a soldier who spent days in the jungle fighting along the front lines.

“If you kept moving, you didn’t get much trouble,” Hunt said.

Hunt, now the proprietor of Sunset Lake Farm, returned to Oregon after the war to attend classes at Portland State University. He participated in a nationwide student strike in May of 1970 in response to President Richard Nixon’s decision to expand the war into Cambodia.

The strike included the Kent State University demonstration, in which four students were shot by National Guardsmen.

“It was pretty exciting,” Hunt said. “It was a pretty wild period.”

‘All wars are fought twice’

Both Hertel and Hunt largely agree with Burns’ portrayal of the war, minus some details.

Hunt questioned some of the documentary’s versions of why the U.S. became involved, as well as its portrayal of soldiers’ daily life. Hertel, meanwhile, viewed some of the film’s focus on emotional stories of soldiers who were killed — as opposed to a more thorough chronicling of facts — as propagandistic.

“There is gallantry and heroism in a war, but in the midst of all of this, the fact that we’re supporting a colonial power against our basic beliefs of democracy, it’s just totally lost,” Hertel said.

In the USA Today interview, Burns said he hoped the film would allow viewers to parse through solid facts about the war. It could be another step for veterans like Hertel and Hunt, who — in different ways — have devoted much of their lives trying to comprehend one of the pivotal events of their lives.

“We feel that all wars are fought twice,” Burns said, “once on the battlefield and then in memory.”


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