More than 40 years after the fall of Saigon, memories of the Vietnam War are still painfully close to the surface for many of the Americans who fought in Southeast Asia — or stood up against the conflict here at home.
The enduring rawness of those feelings was evident Wednesday evening during a two-hour forum at the Corvallis Odd Fellows Hall sponsored by the local chapter of Veterans for Peace, one of many such events taking place across the country in the wake of the 18-hour Ken Burns-Lynn Novick documentary that recently aired on public television.
“We’re hoping this forum will provide somewhat of a catharsis for some, some healing, maybe a little bit of reconciliation about the Vietnam War,” chapter president Bart Bolger said.
About three dozen people attended the event, sitting in chairs arranged in two concentric circles. As the forum got underway, the inner circle was reserved for people who had either done military service during the war or participated in the antiwar movement. Seven men in their 60s and 70s occupied those seats, and every one of them said the United States military should have stayed out of Vietnam.
“Jesus, we’ve been bamboozled,” Gene Russell of Corvallis recalled thinking during his tour of duty with the Army in 1969-70. “They haven’t attacked our country. Why am I being shot at?”
Portland resident Mike Hastie served as an Army medic during the war. What he saw in Vietnam sickened him.
“It wakes you up when you take a teenager off a helicopter who’s got his head missing or took a bullet in the head,” he said, his voice cracking with emotion.
“What we saw in Vietnam was the utter complete (expletive) lie of Vietnam,” he went on. “Ken Burns talks about there were many truths. No! There was only one truth: The truth is the war was a lie — total and complete fabricated bullshit.”
When he got back from Vietnam, Hastie said, he tried to explain to supporters of the war that it was a terrible mistake, but found no one would listen to him.
“Whenever you give information that threatens someone’ core belief system, there is an urgent need to deny,” Hastie said.
“Not only am I betrayed by Vietnam, but I’m betrayed by the American people when I come back and try to bear witness.”
Joseph White of Corvallis, who led an Air Force communications squadron in the Philippines during Vietnam, said the war dragged on as long as it did because politicians hid the truth about the conflict from the American people — and the American people let them get away with it.
“We’re the boss,” he said. “We forgot that. We elect the leaders. We elect the president.”
He urged the audience to demand strict accountability from their elected officials, from the local to the national level.
“I lost buddies (in the war),” he said, “but it was a wakeup call. We’re still free.”
Mike DeMaio of Corvallis, who did a tour in Vietnam with the Marines in 1967-68, said he agreed the war could have been avoided but said it’s important to remember the context of the times.
“Vietnam would not have happened without the Cold War. There was a lot of paranoia, a lot of anxiety,” he said.
“I see a lot more gray than black and white.”
Corvallis resident Richard Raymond was a conscientious objector during Vietnam. He, too, lost friends in the conflict — people who stopped speaking to him because of his antiwar stance. At first, his parents refused to support him, but after they had a change of heart, their friends turned on them as well.
“The war divided the country, and I don’t think it’s ever gotten back,” Raymond said. “You can listen to the people here — there’s been no resolution. We’re still fighting about that war.”
Tom Motko of Salem spent about a year in Vietnam during 1971 and 1972 with the Army Security Agency, tasked with intercepting North Vietnamese communications. He said he lost faith in the war when a noncommissioned officer who had been at the Gulf of Tonkin told him the U.S. fabricated evidence of an attack as a pretext for entering the conflict.
He said he gets angry when asked if he witnessed any atrocities in Vietnam.
“The war is the atrocity. Everything else follows from that,” he said. “It wasn’t just murder at My Lai. It was the murder of American youth.”
Jon Doud of Corvallis, who joined the antiwar movement during Vietnam, said he sees parallels between that conflict and American military actions today.
“It doesn’t feel to me that anything has changed at all,” he said. “It’s still 18-year-old guys with guns out in the field killing people.”
One young woman, part of a group of Oregon State University history students attending the event, asked what civilians could do to help veterans of the Vietnam War.
Motko urged her to shift her focus to the new generation of American warriors, the men and women serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“Support the veterans who are coming home now,” he urged her. “They’re the ones who need it.”