Vietnam vets hope miniseries fosters new understanding
Pat Riley learned the code of silence the hard way.
After he got out of the military in 1969, he enrolled at UW-Madison.
On the first day of class, a teacher asked students what they did during the summer.
Students shared stories about parties and good times.
The teacher turned to Riley and said, “You are older than the others. What have you been doing?”
Riley replied he just got out of the Marines after serving a year in Vietnam.
“So you're a baby killer?” the teacher responded.
For the next 15 years or longer, Riley never mentioned his military service.
He left school, grew his hair long and did what he could to blend in.
Narrator Peter Coyote in the first episode of a new miniseries, “The Vietnam War,” explains:
“For those Americans who fought in it and for those who fought against it back home, the Vietnam War was a decade of agony and the most divisive period since the Civil War.”
Riley, like so many Vietnam vets, discovered that some pain came after surviving the battlefield.
He is among area vets and others who are watching a 10-part, 18-hour documentary about the war by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick.
The series began Sept. 17 and will end Thursday, Sept. 28, on Wisconsin Public Television.
“I want to see Vietnam through someone else's eyes,” Riley said.
The Janesville man is getting his wish.
The documentary features interviews with 80 people.
They include U.S. privates and Vietnamese troops, grieving parents in both countries, anti-war protesters, journalists and presidents.
The epic series will promote conversations about Vietnam, which are long overdue, Riley said.
Thirty years ago, he would not have been able to watch the series because the pain cut too deeply.
“I closed myself up,” he explained. “I went to my own little world.”
Riley does not remember when he started talking about Vietnam, but talking made the memories more bearable.
He praises the series because “it validates the fact that we served our country, and it wasn't easy,” Riley said. “Most Vietnam vets spent 15 to 20 years being the bad guys simply because we served.”
A radio operator with the infantry, Riley fought in northern South Vietnam.
“I'm proud of what I did,” he said. “My service made me appreciate America more and the things I took for granted.”
He praises the Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 236 in Janesville.
“Joining the local veterans chapter is probably the best thing I ever did,” Riley said. “It has helped me to heal. We do seminars on the war at schools so kids can ask questions they won't find answers to in history books.”
He wishes all politicians would watch the series so “they know what they are doing when they send our young people to go and fight in war,” especially a war “where we can fight only on a limited basis.”
THE FOREVER MEMORIES
Bill Williams plans to watch all episodes of the series.
But he will not watch them without his wife, Mary, at his side.
“Without her, I wouldn't be here,” he said.
Mary and other family members stood beside Williams when he returned to Janesville from Vietnam in 1967.
“When I came back, I wasn't behaving the same as when I left,” Williams explained.
He sought help for post-traumatic stress disorder at a time before the term existed.
He considers himself the luckiest guy on Earth because he survived Vietnam and came home to people who supported him.
Williams calls the documentary a good thing because of the information it reveals.
“I don't think the truth has ever been exposed like this,” Williams said. “The series will bring Vietnam to the forefront.”
He hopes the documentary will help people understand what troops endured on and off the battlefield.
Williams, who served in the Army, lost eight friends in the war, and he was with five of them when they died.
He fought with an M60 machine gun, capable of firing 560 rounds of ammunition a minute. Because of his lethal weapon, he was a high-profile target for the enemy.
Fifty years after he served, Williams thinks about Vietnam every day.
He understands the great silence that often surrounded the war.
When Williams came home, he remembers a get-together for 20 people at his parents' house.
“No one asked about Vietnam,” he said. “It was like I had the plague. No one mentioned it.”
Williams went to work at the former General Motors plant in Janesville, where no one asked him about the war during more than seven years on the job.
“I'm vocal about it,” he said. “My biggest therapy has been telling my story.”
He shares his experience freely with his four sons and now his grandchildren.
“I have a third-grade grandson who is full of questions about Vietnam,” Williams said. “He wants to know why presidents don't fight wars.”
A NEW UNDERSTANDING
Bob Maves is taping the entire Vietnam series to watch at a later date.
“I'm sure there is a lot that I am going to learn,” he said. “Just because I was there doesn't mean I know much of anything.”
He was drafted into the U.S. Army from June 1969 to June 1970 and served in the central highlands of Vietnam.
“Every vet should watch the series,” he said. “But I'm sure it will be hard on some.”
Like his colleagues, when he got out of the Army, Maves hardly talked to anyone about the war.
“It's not that I was ashamed about anything,” he said. “But if you haven't been there, it's hard to understand.”
His father served in World War II, “but he wouldn't understand either,” Maves said.
The silence was so pervasive, he had a friend for 10 years before learning he was a Vietnam vet.
In 1986, Maves helped form Chapter 236 of the Vietnam Veterans of America.
“I didn't think we would get the 35 members we needed to form a chapter,” he recalls. “We got them in two hours, and we kept adding members. Our high was 125 members, but there's still a lot of vets in this town we don't know about.”
Getting veterans together has helped them open up.
“Sometimes I can't quit talking about the war,” Maves said.
Other vets retreated into a shell and stayed there.
One Janesville veteran said he won't talk about the war because “it tears me apart inside.”
Maves, who was drafted, hopes the PBS series offers new understanding.
“We did what our country asked us to do,” he said. “We are not druggies or baby killers. We are normal people who got jobs and raised families. Vietnam vets are homegrown people, local people, who served their country.”
Maves spent 362 days, one hour and five minutes in Vietnam by his own accounting.
“Everyone knew the day they would come home,” he said.
His happiest days were when he and his brother got out of the service unhurt.
He thinks often about U.S. troops fighting overseas today.
“They are doing what their country asks them to do,” Maves said. “No one wins a war. Any war is terrible.”
Anna Marie Lux is a Sunday columnist for The Gazette. Call her with ideas or comments at 608-755-8264, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.