"You put a gun in a 19-year-old's hand, and what do you think is going to happen?"
When a Vietnam veteran said this to me during a recent interview, I was struck by competing emotions — humility for not being able to comprehend or fully appreciate what these men went through — and a chill for how profound and insightful this one comment could be.
"Yep," I thought. "He's right. What happens when you give a teenager a gun and put him in a war zone?"
About six weeks ago, I announced The Gazette was beginning a series called "Vietnam Voices." The approach is simple: Veterans from or living in the area tell their experiences of the Vietnam War. We are trying to preserve these stories, telling them now on the 50th anniversary of combat troops going to Vietnam.
Hopefully, there'll be at least 50 veterans who will be a part of the effort so that in another 50 years, folks in Billings won't have to wonder what Vietnam was like — they'll have a collection of stories and experiences to understand this very important event. That series begins today, with the story of Jimmie Kerr.
Getting the opportunity to interview these veterans has been profound and an honor. While I don't consider myself an expert on Vietnam — in fact, I'll admit my interest used to be passing, as it was always something my dad's generation did — now, there's a stack of books and films that I've been reading and watching with a deeper sense of appreciation.
In my career, I don't know if I have had a better group of interviews. The honesty of these men, their dedication and humble nature have given us some amazing wisdom about what's important in life, how to survive and the true cost of war — paid by many veterans during the course of a lifetime as they battle demons that never quite leave.
Today, running through Veterans Day — and longer if we need — we begin to present "Vietnam Voices:" veterans' stories, told in their own words.
Many of the interviews have taken longer than an hour. Some have even reached the second hour. They are riveting. They demonstrate compassion, honesty and service. They are well worth the watch. Every couple days, we'll show a different vet. An abbreviated version of the interview will run in print. Some would take page after page if we printed the entire transcript. What you see in print is but a mere sliver of the conversation — that's the only regret I have. The full video or audio version will be available on our website or through The Gazette's YouTube channel.
As one veteran walked out of our studio, I thanked him for his willingness to share.
"You're the first person who asked," he said.
When I thanked another, he replied, "I am not sure why I told you. I've never told my kids. But I want someone to know and for the story to be saved."
On one hand, it's hard to believe. On another, it's easy. One particular vet never told his son and grandson he has a Purple Heart. Guess they'll have to be surprised like I was.
And yet, it's totally believable. There are common themes in these interviews, including the tough, if not appalling, reception these vets were given when they returned home. Some were spit on. Some were called "baby killers." One veteran even said, "I was lucky. I went home on a medical transport so I didn't have to deal with that."
What he didn't say was that he was being medically transported because of the enemy's bullet in his leg.
I was honored to be at the VFW in the Heights when it held a "Welcome Home" party for Vietnam vets. It was a half-century in the making. It was pretty clear that our country has gotten much better at supporting the soldier even if we have questions about the war. Even more importantly, though, our community got another chance to do it right — to say thanks for the service.
Now, The Gazette will attempt to carry on that same torch as we thank our vets for their service and remember their stories.
These are their voices. The only thing I'll add is, "Thanks."