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For veterans, Vietnam anniversary means different things

by Nancy Hamlett

For 22 years, Bruce Bertram was a “closet vet,” unwilling to talk about the war in Vietnam, or even acknowledge that he participated in any way.

It sounds severe, yet Bertram said that veterans concealing their involvement in Vietnam wasn’t unusual. If anything, the secrecy was common.

“It was a culture shock when we came home, in more ways than one,” said the Johnson Lane man. “Everyone talks about public opinion, and it was horrible, but we were whisked out of Vietnam and back home fast. It was less than two days for me. How is a person supposed to adjust so quickly?”

Bertram served one tour of duty in Vietnam with the Army’s Air Mobile Combat Artillery. Describing the experience as “intense,” Bertram explained that with only 15 minutes’ notice, he and the other men in his unit would be ordered to pack and load into Chinook helicopters that ferried them to the LZ, or landing zone. They also transported four Howitzers used for the missions.

“They would drop us anywhere they needed the firepower,” said Bertram. “And it was constant high stress. We weren’t involved with what was happening in the United States, the dove movement and the civil problems. We had enough to do. The one word we lived by was ‘survival.'”

Somehow Bertram lost track of the time he had served, and without warning, it was time to go home.

“I was on the LZ when I got the orders and was hurried to the helicopter,” said Bertram. “I was then flown to Da Nang on a C130, transferred to the Freedom Bird and 15 hours later, I was in Washington state.”

Bertram was still wearing his jungle fatigues and hadn’t a chance to clean up or shower.

“It was, ‘Wow, here I am,’ and then we were scoffed at,” said Bertram. “We didn’t have what I would call a ‘welcome home.'”

Bertram, like many Vietnam veterans, felt the sting of the public’s reaction. He said that he was “absolutely affected” by the negativity and rejection, and withdrew – unable and unwilling to discuss Vietnam.

“Vietnam wasn’t like any other war or action,” said Bertram. “Before, when we won the war, everyone got to come home. In Vietnam, troops were constantly going or coming home, and no one got a welcome. The American public was frustrated with the war effort and took their anger out on the returning vets.”

When the war ended in 1975, Bertram said that he felt failure.

“What a terrible waste of human lives to have been involved in what amounted to an economic war,” said Bertram. “It was a waste, such a waste, being asked to go to a no-win war.”

It wasn’t until 1989 that Bertram came to terms with his involvement in Vietnam and started the healing process. He noticed a flyer in a gas station for the Vietnam traveling memorial wall which was coming to Reno.

“I fell apart,” said Bertram. “Then and there I realized that it was time to come out of the closet and do something about it.”

Bertram offered his assistance to Chapter 139 of the Vietnam Vets of America in Reno. He attended the opening ceremonies for the traveling memorial and started to deal with the weight that was on his shoulders.

“It was very heavy,” said Bertram. “The parade ended in the Rose Garden in Idlewild Park. We started with 14 ‘Nam vets dressed in everything from camos (camouflage) to shorts. By the time the parade ended, over 200 ‘Nam vets joined us from the audience.”

Bertram said that the opening ceremonies and dedication were a moving time in his life. Although it started to snow, no one left the audience. And when it came time to view the memorial, he wasn’t sure that he wanted to.

“But once I got there, I recognized names and said my good-byes. I unloaded excess baggage that I’d carried for 20 years,” said Bertram. “Yes, there were tears, but because it gave me the ability to shed that baggage, it was neat.”

Shortly thereafter, Bertram continued his efforts to make a difference for other Vietnam vets. He helped form a chapter of the Vietnam Veterans of America in Carson City, serving as the president of Chapter 388 for six years, as well as the vice president and chaplain.

In 1991, the Vietnam traveling memorial came to Carson City, largely through the efforts of the VVA.

“It stayed for 10 days, and while it was here, we started a petition for the release of information to loved ones about prisoners of war and military personnel missing in action,” said Bertram.

When the wall left, the VVA had enough signatures to present the petition to the Legislature.

“We testified before the Assembly, and then the Senate. It took one week to get the resolution passed. I think that is some kind of record,” said Bertram.

Bertram attributes the speedy action to the fact that the legislators had to pass the wall to enter the Legislative Building.

“They couldn’t ignore the impact of that wall,” said Bertram. “It sends a powerful message to everyone, not just Vietnam vets.”

During this same period of time, the VVA tried to get state approval and funding for a Vietnam memorial in Carson City.

“We were told that it would never fly unless it was a memorial to all wars,” said Bertram. “We saw the reasoning behind that and agreed.”

The war memorial is located behind the state library. The sandstone wall depicts all wars from the Civil War to the Gulf War.

Since then, the VVA has continued to fight for Vietnam veterans’ rights.

“Even other veteran organizations didn’t recognize us at first,” said Bertram. “We were the lost soldiers. We fought in a war, but we didn’t fit the comfortable description of a veteran. Korean vets got the same treatment. It was unfair, and we worked to make changes.”

Even today, there are Vietnam veterans who haven’t come out of the closet, said Bertram.

“They haven’t been able to shake loose of that baggage like I was able to do,” said Bertram. “But I know the feeling. The VVA will help with clothing, food, haircuts and even transportation to jobs. We reach out in all directions.”

Bertram is now at peace with many of the issues that he brought home from Vietnam and the attitudes that greeted him when he returned. Bertram said that he has learned to forgive.

“Take, for example, the draft-dodgers,” said Bertram. “At first, I felt anger at those who avoided the draft, I didn’t feel it was right that they evaded the issue. But I’ve come to grips and changed my mind. Maybe, in some ways, they were right.”

However, there is one issue that will never be resolved for Bertram.

“Even though governments deny it, I personally believe that there are still POWs over there, and information is being withheld,” said Bertram. “I will continue to work daily to make sure that all of POWs and MIAs are accounted for.”

One day, not long ago, Bertram was wearing his Vietnam vet hat in the grocery store. The courtesy clerk read the hat and said, “Vietnam. I’ve never been there. What’s the country like?”

“Sadly, it was a beautiful country,” said Bertram. “Maybe I ought to go back for a visit.”

Instead of dwelling in the past, John Dorf prefers to remember the Vietnam that he visited after the war.

“The Vietnamese people and country are beautiful,” said Dorf, who is currently the director of special services for the Douglas County School District. “When I first went to Vietnam in 1962, I thought that I would like to bring my wife as a tourist. We finally did so in 1993, and it was a wonderful experience.”

Dorf enlisted in the Army right out of high school, rather than face the two-year mandatory draft, and served a tour of duty in Korea with a rifle platoon. He returned to the United States and attended one year of college before enlisting again and attending Officer’s Candidate School. This began a career in the military which spans 42 years, including reserve duty.

“I really enjoyed the Army. I grew up emotionally, mentally and physically,” said Dorf. “However, my one year at the university was disastrous. I wasn’t ready to study, so I enlisted again, was accepted to OCS and received a regular Army commission.”

From 1962-1964, Dorf served his first two Vietnam tours with the Special Services.

“That Green Beret bunch,” said Dorf, who was called “the boy captain.”

Many of the noncommissioned officers who served under Dorf were five to eight years older. They had served in Korea, some were POWs in Korea, and they were now serving in Vietnam. They were career professional soldiers.

“They were the most incredible group of people I ever worked with,” said Dorf. “Forget all that nonsense you see in the movies, the Green Berets were nothing like that.”

Dorf served a third tour of duty in Vietnam during 1967-1968 with an infantry battalion. Although he served three years total in Vietnam, Dorf sidestepped discussing the war effort and talked about the people and places instead.

“When I first went to Vietnam, I was awestruck. Not only was it a beautiful place, I met some wonderful people,” said Dorf.

However, Dorf was saddened when he returned to Vietnam in 1967.

“Imagine Gardnerville now, and Gardnerville after a major bombing,” said Dorf. “The towns were devastated. Some of the towns were, by Vietnamese standards, prosperous. There was nothing standing.”

When asked about Vietnam, Dorf discussed the errors that were made in fighting the war, but never the war itself.

“Politically and psychologically, we were not ready for that type of war, and the South Vietnamese didn’t have the will to pursue the war,” said Dorf. “The rice paddy farmers didn’t care about the government. They just wanted to be left alone to farm.”

“There is no way we would have won,” added Dorf. “However, the Vietnam War was a watershed, it changed military culture. We learned, and we have used what we learned. If for no other reason, the Vietnam war was important because of the lessons.”

Dorf said that the Vietnam war contributed to major medical advances, including advanced techniques to treat burn victims.

“Other medical fields opened up because of the Vietnam war,” said Dorf. “EMTs, nurse practitioners, physician’s assistants, these are fields that grew out of the medic in the field.”

Upon returning to Vietnam as a tourist, Dorf discovered a country that was healing. Ho Chi Minh City, the former Saigon, is another Bangkok, according to Dorf, but from Hanoi south, there has been a strong effort toward reforestation.

“From the ground it looks a lot like the Vietnam I first saw,” said Dorf. “It isn’t until you get in the air and see the small ponds dotting the countryside that you realize that they are bomb craters.”

The roads are still in bad condition, but Dorf said that the country is slowly rebuilding them.

“However, war unification is still affecting a significant segment of the population,” said Dorf. “If a Vietnamese had any contact or cooperation with the U.S. government in any capacity, they are considered a lower class with zero jobs of any significance.”

Dorf was able to locate several people he knew while in Vietnam. One man was just a 12-year-old boy during the war.

“We called him Cricket, and he had only one leg. When I described him, the people brought him from a nearby village,” said Dorf.

Half of the village watched and listened to their reunion.

“The Vietnamese are naturally outgoing and warm people,” said Dorf. “Doors are left open, and people were sharing our stories. It’s a moment that will stay with me forever,”

According to Dorf, the Vietnam war was just a small blip in Vietnam’s history.

“The Vietnamese have survived 2,000 years of war and invasions. It seems that the American people are the ones having a hard time adjusting,” said Dorf. “But that was then, this is now. Over the years I’ve processed my thinking. I’m glad it’s over, but we can learn a lot from Vietnam.”

Given the circumstances, the outcome of the Vietnam war may have been inevitable. However, Dorf said he never felt let down by the American people or by the Vietnamese.

“Our government was on the wrong track. That’s why we lost the war,” said Dorf.

According to Dorf, the POW-MIA issue is a sensitive one. However, he doesn’t believe that there are any POWs remaining in Vietnam.

“There are over 300,000 Vietnamese still not accounted for. And with the type of war we fought, they never will be,” said Dorf.

With the Vietnam War Memorial as the most visited site in Washington, D.C., Dorf said that the Vietnam war should not be considered a shameful chapter in our history.

“I get a catch in my throat just thinking about the memorial. It’s striking, and I had a meaningful moment standing before it,” said Dorf.

“I’ve always said that things can control our lives, or we can put them in our heart or a quieter place. It’s important to bring about resolution and closure. It’s happening for Korea and World War II, but it is still not happening for Vietnam. Maybe someday it will.”

When Norbert Monohan returned from serving in Vietnam, he learned quickly that the war and the country were taboo subjects.

“After I left the Navy, I attended college, on the GI bill, of course,” said Monohan, now a Fish Springs resident. “I was told to come in the back door and don’t talk about Vietnam. That’s when I realized that all the negative stuff we heard about American attitudes while in Vietnam was accurate.”

Monohan joined the Navy in 1958 and served in Vietnam from 1964-1966, before the Tet offensive and the height of the Vietnam protests. Assigned to naval aviation, he flew with reconnaissance squadrons based in Guam and the Philippines. Their function was to take pictures, mostly of ships, and to search for submarines off the Vietnam coastline.

Cameroon Bay was a three-day patrol, and they flew missions 10 days out of every month. While stationed in Guam, the squadron directed incoming strikes from air carriers as well as continuing reconnaissance missions. The planes were also used for typhoon hunting.

The squadron flew P5Ms, which Monohan said were slow and old. Originally manned by 13 unarmed crew members, as the war escalated, two men with machine guns were added to the crew.

“To some people, reconnaissance could seem like a boring assignment, and the flights were long and tedious,” said Monohan. “But we had seven confirmed missile firings at us. And when the P5Ms landed, the seaplane tender had to race to get us out of the water. The P5M had a large hull-an easy target-so there were always a lot of holes from enemy fire. They would patch the holes and then we would fly again.”

Monohan said that, while in Vietnam, rumors were already circulating about an anti-war movement in the United States.

“We all said that that kind of thing doesn’t happen in the U.S. It was all propaganda,” said Monohan. “But when we returned home, we discovered the truth. This wasn’t a war about good guys vs. bad guys. To many people, we were all bad guys.”

Never called a war during the American military presence, the Vietnam conflict was fought by a different set of rules.

“We were told that the people in black pajamas were the enemy, but everyone wore black pajamas,” said Monohan. “You even had to watch out for the shoe shine boy, and pay him even if you didn’t get a shine. If we didn’t, he might toss a grenade at our feet.”

Unable to identify the enemy, the men serving in Vietnam were understandably edgy. However, Monohan said that the war effort, in general, made for a different kind of war.

“The war was run from the United States, not there,” said Monohan. “There was a lot of uneasiness about that. And we weren’t permitted to fight the war to win. It was a war run by politicians. You can’t win a war that way.”

For two years in Southeast Asia, Monohan led a polarized life.

“I had my family, and when I wasn’t on patrol, I led the family life,” said Monohan. “The rest of the time, I was on the edge of my seat. It always took some time to make the adjustment back to the family life. I think it was harder on my family than it was on me.”

Once Monohan returned to the United States and learned the rules – to emotionally cover up any involvement in Vietnam – he never talked about the country, the people or his experiences.

“Not to anyone in any place,” said Monohan. “In Los Angeles, San Diego, nobody talked about the war. It was just the way things were. We weren’t vets. We weren’t recognized by the VA (Veteran’s Administration) or the VFW (Veterans of Foreign Wars). Men and women returning from Vietnam had no status at all.”

When the U.S. pulled out of Vietnam in 1975, Monohan remembered feeling that the government had let them down.

“We suffered a loss of face,” said Monohan. “The Japanese talk about it, but we experienced it. And I don’t think we have fully recovered to this day.”

By 1981, Monohan was finally able to talk to other Vietnam veterans about the war. He said, however, that even today, they steer clear of the brutal aspects and focus on the good times.

“Until then, we kind of ignored it and we were ignored,” said Monohan. “Now we talk about the good times, the funny things that happened, the humorous way we looked at things and the pranks. Even today, we don’t allow ourselves to get very serious.”