Born: Bartlesville, Oklahoma, 1948 Served in Vietnam, U.S. Army 2d Battalion, 501st Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division Northern I Corps Rifleman, 1970-71
From the Artist:
From a memoir, 1991: In 1966, on my eighteenth birthday, I registered for the draft. I never looked at a map to see where Vietnam was, but I started paying a lot more attention to the nightly news. Things were beginning to heat up over there, and I watched it all on television. I was scared, but very curious about what it was really like. I wasn't drafted until 1969, so like many others I watched older friends go off to Vietnam. Some came back with severe wounds; some didn't come back at all. None were talking. They had changed; they had all changed. They seemed quiet and bitter. I didn't understand it until I had gone and returned: they were deeply hurt from watching close friends die, having to kill other human beings, and then coming home, where the only people who cared were those who hated us. I didn't really have an opinion about the war before going. It wasn't the way I thought it would be from watching World War II movies as a child, and that confused me. Those who survived were supposed to return from war as heroes, with dignity, respect, and honor. After watching some of my friends go to Vietnam, then come back without parades, forever forgotten and forever changed, I had serious doubts about being drafted. But something made me go against my better judgement. After all, men are supposed to go off to war. I had to see what it was really like, and I couldn't let my family think I was a coward.
In the old imperial city of Hue there were sandbags and barbed wire surrounding the schools. There were soldiers with machine guns guarding the children as they played. There were women and children begging in the streets as we drove by in trucks. There were no young Vietnamese men without uniforms. There were hundreds and hundreds of houses made out of scraps of wood from ammunition crates and the cardboard from c-ration boxes. There were piles of rubble that had formerly been beautiful mansions in what was once a great city. There were mass graves where the North Vietnamese Army had executed thousands of civilians during the Tet Offensive of 1968. I could only imagine what these people had been through. I started crying for them, instead of for myself.
I was taken into the jungle on a resupply helicopter to join the Delta Raiders, who were already on a combat mission. The bird's-eye view of the distant mountains was breathtaking; flat, plush green rice paddies ran right up to a wall of triple-canopy, jungle-covered mountains. Mountain streams and rivers ran everywhere, and waterfalls. I could hardly believe there was a war going on in such a wonderful place. Aside from occasional bomb craters, the view was spectacular; it was a dream world made of every kind of green. No artist could ever do it justice.
Once I was with the company, my reason for being in Vietnam changed. I still cared about the South Vietnamese people, but they seemed very far away. Our immediate problem was the survival of one another: these scruffy-looking characters with eyes that seemed to look through you. The only thing that mattered at all was the ground I was standing on and those standing there with me. It was basic and tribal, a primitive state of mind.
There were no front lines in Vietnam, so at dusk the company would form a large circle and face outward. It was so dark in the jungle at night that you couldn't see the men posted to either side of you. Sometimes waiting for something to happen was harder than being in a firefight.
On my second day in the field we headed down from the mountains; by early afternoon we had reached a beautiful river and started working our way upstream. A light observation helicopter passed over our heads at treetop level. We heard a loud crack-crack-crack and the chopper burst into a ball of flame and fell from the sky. There was a firefight....
The next day we killed a lone NVA soldier and that night we set up an ambush around his body. My position was about two feet in front of him. He didn't look real, but I knew he was. I wondered if he had a wife and children. We had been trained to think of the NVA as our enemy and not human beings, but I couldn't help it. He was lying there all full of holes and his family didn't even know yet that he was dead....
When I got home from Vietnam, everyone was still doing the same things; it was as though time had stood still for them. Things that I had enjoyed a year earlier seemed boring and childish. There were men dying in the jungles of Vietnam, and no one seemed to care. It made me very angry. When I tried to explain my feelings, I was cut off cold. The war was something bad that I guess everyone thought would go away if they kept silent.
I never really had nightmares about my experiences, but when it's quiet and I lie in bed, I think of Vietnam.