Today I finished watching The Vietnam War: A Film by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick. The documentary that aired on PBS was a comprehensive look at the war that changed the U.S. while impacting the Asian Continent for decades.
I grew up during the time many Vietnam veterans were adjusting to life back in the states. I Remember listening to stories of family friends that completed a tour of duty in Vietnam, and I often asked my dad about his experiences during that time.
Like many adult males during the late 60’s and early 70’s my dad had a choice to make. He decided to volunteer for the National Guard in the hopes he wouldn’t have to serve overseas. The gamble paid off as he served active duty in Iowa for six years from 1965 to 1971 during a turbulent time. I have to admit that I was embarrassed to tell people that he didn’t serve in Vietnam. Until I watched the documentary.
That is when I realized how polarized the climate was in the U.S. and how insane the prosecution of the war had become for the generals and political figures leading it. Hearing the experiences of Hal Kushner, John Musgrave, Matt Harrison, Tom Vallely, Sam Wilson and others made me realize that the fog of war that consumed our troops fighting an unseen enemy in dense jungles was only matched by the fog of culture clashes that tore at the seems of this great country.
Since that time I have also realized how important the National Guard is. Especially after understanding the role they had in Afganistan and Iraq.
Traveling to Vietnam in 2013 has also had a lasting impact on me. I stood on the heliport of the presidential palace where the last Americans were evacuated from the country. I also stayed in the Hotel Majestic, in Ho Chi Minh City, where John F. Kennedy had dinner as a U.S. Senator in the 50s. I even took a boat trip down the Saigon River seeing miles of dense jungle line the river bank. The entire time I was in Vietnam I tried to imagine what it was like during the war. I also grappled with the fact that Vietnam is now a prospering country with an economy that offers luxury commercial brands like Louis Vuitton, Cartier, and Mercedes-Benz. It is a far cry from my earlier notions of a drab depressed communist country.
Now as the veterans of Vietnam become grandparents and move towards retirement they have finally been afforded the respect they deserve from serving in a brutal war. A war that brought turmoil to both countries and left many lives shattered. I only wish that my father, David Murphy, was alive (he died in a tragic motorcycle accident) to ask him more questions about his experiences during that time. I also wish that Larry Larson, my father-in-law, was alive so I could ask him about his experiences of serving in Vietnam. Both were threads of the fabric that made the Vietnam era.
Meaning can be found by listening to the stories of the people who lived through it. That is why I will always take time to listen to the people that lived during that era.