Area residents gather for Vietnam War discussion

WORTHINGTON - Sitting around a table in a room at Minnesota West, the events of 50 years ago suddenly seemed closer. A vet who had been shot in the line of duty, his adult daughter, a protester, another vet who had served but not in combat, a man who chose not to obey his draft notice - they gathered with others to discuss the ramifications of the Vietnam War and the documentary by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick that has been running on Pioneer Public Television.

Southwest Regional Coordinator Justin Guggisberg of the Minnesota Department of Veterans Affairs - himself an Iraqi vet - facilitated the discussion while people with different points of view from years ago came together to talk about the documentary, the war, and how it affects them still.

For their privacy, Radio Works has opted not to reveal the names of those who participated in the discussion.

"I always felt guilty," one man said. "I served in the Air Force but not in the field."

He spoke of how he played in the military band near a base hospital overseas, and how the sight of so many soldiers being carried past him daily were missing limbs.

"I had to wonder, 'Is it worth this?'" he said. "So I came home and became anti-war."

He disagreed with the protesters who castigated the returning soldiers by calling them baby killers and spitting on them.

"I think it went way too far," he admitted.

Guggisberg asked the group if in watching the documentary, they felt as though the Vietnam War, with supporters and protesters involved, felt like a second Civil War in America.

One man said no, it didn't, but yet he mused about how little we have learned and how elusive peace is.

"Have we come anywhere from the Vietnam experience?" he wondered aloud.

A woman sitting at the table responded with obvious anger that she was furious.

"I see what's happening right now, how close we are to war," she stated. "It's a game to those people who don't have to play - those who are leading. It's the monetary value. 'Let's create a war, let's wipe them out.' I don't know how to stop it."

In speaking of the Vietnamese people, one woman said that it feels as though they may have forgiven us.

"But who do we forgive?" muttered a man who had served during the war. "Some went to Canada, and our president forgave them so they could come back. Who do we forgive?"

A veteran who was wounded in Vietnam said that two weeks ago he celebrated the 50th anniversary of getting shot. Asked how he got through leaving Vietnam behind, he said he buried himself in his work, his family.

"And you didn't talk about it," his daughter pointed out.

Now that he is retired, he thinks about that time in his life more, he admitted.

"I think about how my parents felt when I was gone," he said. "I didn't think of that back then."

Back then, soldiers were told to 'suck it up,' a woman pointed out.

"Was it because you didn't want to burden anyone?" she asked the veteran.

"Yes," came the immediate reply. He then admitted he thinks more now about the opposing soldiers' views, reading books and trying to understand.

"I realized how tough it was for them," he said.

"But that's the way they grew up," another vet said. "They were born and raised to fight. We did what we were told."

The Vietnam War documentary they had just watched made several people in the group think more about the lives and stories behind each person - Americans and Vietnamese.

"I remember there were these silver bracelets. Each one had the name of a POW. You were never supposed to take it off until that POW came home," a woman said. "We all wanted this bracelet. We didn't have the awareness really of what it meant, but it was cool to have it. But did we think about the fact that this actually represents a person?"

The Air Force vet who admitted to turning anti-war when he came home stated that the symbols - yellow ribbons, bumper stickers urging others to support the troops - are all fluff.

"It's over-simplified patriotism," he said.

Guggisberg agreed that some of it might feel that way at times, but as a returning soldier, he appreciated the sentiment when he came back.

"It was a powerful sign that no one forgot about you," he said.

"Then what changed between then and now?" a Vietnam vet asked, the anguish apparent in his voice.

"You changed it," Guggisberg steadily replied. "Your generation lobbied for better support so others would never be treated like that."

Several members of the panel pointed out they had never been part of a discussion like this before.

"Neither have I," said the woman seated next to her veteran father. "And the last person I expected to be in this discussion with is him."

"The film was not meant to answer questions," Guggisberg said. "It was meant to start discussions."

The Vietnam War documentary by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick is available on Pioneer Pubic TV. Find out more at www.pioneer.org.

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