Seeing Vietnam through the eyes of local heroes

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The Union Parish Museum of History and Art’s exhibit, From War to Peace, focuses on the experiences and memories of local Vietnam Veterans’ military service and how they adjusted to civilian life once they returned home. Gazette photo by Charlette Madden Clockwise from top left: Weapons, medals and other artifacts from the Vietnam War submitted by local veterans; Douglas Upshaw, Tony Nolan and Jimmy Odom all Vietnam Veterans contributed to the exhibit; Tribute to Ssgt. Porter E. Calloway who was injured and captured. He is presumed dead but the Vietnamese deny any knowledge of him; Uniforms and photos contributed by Union Parish Vietnam Veterans; Medals and uniform patches earned by Don Byrnes in Vietnam during his service in the Marine Corps 1968-1970. Gazette photos by Charlette Madden

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The Vietnam War was a long and costly war that pitted the communist government of North Vietnam against South Vietnam and its principal ally, the United States. The conflict was intensified by the ongoing Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union.

The Vietnam War used enlisted soldiers and also employed the draft. From the beginning of the U.S. involvement in the conflict in 1961, until April 1975, approximately 2,700,000 American men and women served in Vietnam. More than 3 million people were killed during the Vietnam War. Over 58,000 Americans lost their lives and more than 1 million Vietnamese civilians were killed.

Opposition to the war in the United States bitterly divided Americans. This also held true for Union Parish. Many questioned the decision to send young Americans and financial resources to a foreign country while others argued that stopping communism was necessary.

Union Parish had many young men who served during this long and ugly war. While the community might have been divided over their opinions on the war, most of them were in complete support of their local soldiers and all mourned together as some of them made the ultimate sacrifice.

Union Museum of History and Art has preserved memories, photographs and artifacts from local heroes and their families in their current exhibit of “From War to Peace.”

The exhibit focuses on local Vietnam veterans’ military service and their return to peacetime. “These guys deserve every honor and accolade that we can give them for their sacrifice,” said Jean Jones, Exhibits and Program Director for the Union Museum.

The war might have ended 45 years ago but for these Union Parish veterans, it lives on in their hearts, minds and the dark memories that many have been reluctant to share until now. “My first night in Vietnam was a shock to me,” said Ralph Holley who served in Vietnam from 1965-1969 as an Army Captain. “Mortar rounds and shooting all night…dead bodies laid out. I didn’t think I would make it, but I did,” said Holley.

Jimmy Odom who served in the Army 173rd Airborne Brigade, 2nd Battalion and the 82nd Air Brigade from 1969-1970, and Tony Nolan, 173rd Airborne Brigade, 2nd Battalion who served from 1970-1971, remember what it was like to be on guard and alert at all times. “You hear about a sixth sense? You get that sixth sense,” said Nolan. “You could not only smell the enemy,” said Odom, “you could feel them. They were hunting us and we were hunting them.”

Those memories still haunt both Nolan and Odom. “Sometimes that smell will come out of nowhere and you go back to that time,” said Odom. “I never want my back to a door even at my own home,” said Nolan.

Artifacts, photographs and first hand accounts of the combat, death and other aspects of the war from local heroes are on display at the museum. “This exhibit allows us glimpses in the veterans’ innermost thoughts and we can better understand this chapter of America’s history and appreciate the great sacrifices made by Union Parish soldiers and other U.S. troops,” said Jones.

Vietnam Veterans are among the highest numbers of soldiers with lingering mental and physical issues from their service. According to a survey by the Veterans Administration, more than 500,000 of the 3 million troops who served in Vietnam suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. Rates of divorce, suicide, alcoholism and drug addiction were also markedly higher among Vietnam veterans. “It should not have been surprising that so many vets came back with mental troubles,” said Doug Upshaw who served in the U.S. Navy in Vietnam from 1971-1972. “We were brought up learning not to kill, yet that is what we had to do,” said Upshaw.

The display also shows how these veterans transitioned back to civilian life. They returned to work, wives, children, school, finding love and marriage and some continued their military service. No matter what they went on to do, these soldiers will always be haunted by what they saw and did during their service in Vietnam. “It would be 10 years before I could watch a Vietnam movie, because so many stars were making big money from a war that saw the returnees treated so bad,” said Tom “Tuffy” Fields who served the U.S. Navy in Vietnam in 1973.

While those who returned home were haunted by their memories and some mistreated by protestors, there are those who never made the trip back home. Some made the ultimate sacrifice for their country and their fellow man.

The hometown heroes who lost their lives while serving their country were Johnny Boyd Albritton, Porter Earl Calloway (MIA), Clifton Anthony Davis and Donald Lynn Evans. “These young mean deserve our deepest gratitude and respect. Their country called and they went,” said Jones.

This exhibit displaying the local men who served during the Vietnam War is not one to be missed. Each soldier has an incredible story to tell and the photos and artifacts will keep visitors riveted and give them just a small glimpse of what these brave men and women endured. “From War to Peace” will continue through the end of December.