WOSTER: Hoping our vets find peace this Veterans DayVietnam was the war of my generation. I didn’t serve, and I was never sorry about that. I did experience pangs of guilt from time to time.
By: Terry Woster, The Daily Republic
I was rummaging through a magazine rack in the living room the other day when I happened upon a most amazing book, one I’d forgotten I possessed. The book is an over-sized soft-cover publication titled “South Dakotans in Vietnam.’’ The one I have contained oral histories of that war by some of the Pierre-area men and women who served their tours in Southeast Asia. A longtime staffer with the South Dakota Legislative Research Council and a former Marine rifleman was the project director.
One of the perks of being a newspaper reporter, which I was for a long time, was that people wanted to tell you their stories. By that, I don’t necessarily mean their personal stories, but in the case of the Vietnam oral history project, the story of the project, the story of the men and women who shared their experiences in and feelings about Vietnam and the story of how the book came together. In the course of interviewing people about the project, I heard a lot of stories and I received a copy of the book. That was about a quarter of a century ago. I used to read the remembrances quite often, because I knew a number of the men and women who shared for the project.
Vietnam was the war of my generation. I didn’t serve, and I was never sorry about that. I did experience pangs of guilt from time to time and maybe I thought activities like reading that collection of memories and telling others in South Dakota about it would pay a bit of the debt I wasn’t asked to pay in a uniform in a strange land. That sort of thinking is contorted, I suppose, but a lot of people of my generation had and have their own contorted thoughts about the war.
It was odd that I looked through that magazine rack. I hadn’t done that in several years. It was odd that I found the Vietnam book when I did, as Veterans Day approached and not long after Halloween had passed.
On Halloween, in the midst of a horde of young trick-or-treaters on my front porch, a gentle friend and former Army truck driver in Vietnam stopped by on a walk with his dog. We didn’t get many minutes to talk, what with all the kids tromping around in between us, but I was happy to see him.
When he walked on down the sidewalk, I suddenly had an image of him as a young soldier, shirtless and kneeling next to a truck tire with a tire iron in his hand. That’s one of the black-and-white photographs in the Vietnam book. I used to study the photos, looking for the young version of the older Vietnam vets I saw around town. My friend’s oral remembrances in the book didn’t take up the majority of the space, but he talked about as much in that one project as in all the years I’ve known him.
The book was published in 1986. I don’t know where you’d find a copy, but I’d recommend it today to anyone interested in the matter-of-fact recollections of a group of central South Dakota war veterans. The stories are told by truck drivers, riflemen, nurses, machine gunners, helicopter pilots, fighter pilots and combat medics. What they have in common is a lack of bragging. The vets just sat down and said what it was like. It might have been the first time since they finished their tours that anyone asked them to do that.
Another friend of mine in the book was a medic. He’s a Lakota man from the Rosebud Tribe. Time was, about once a month we’d get together for a huge breakfast and rambling conversations that covered war, soldiering, race relations and politics.
He was proud of his military service, proud of the warrior culture from which he came.
This friend performed a Lakota centering ceremony at the 20th anniversary of the dedication of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall. He said the ceremony was a way to help some of his fellow veterans find peace with themselves, with the people around them and with their Creator.
This Veterans Day, I hope all those men and women who have served their country find that kind of peace.