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Vietnam vets out of the 'shadow;' finally into the light

Soldiers from the 173 Airborne Brigade on patrol in South Vietnam in May, 1965.

SHERMAN, Texas — How does a nation atone for a collective sin? How does it apologize to a generation of men it conscripted and then punished for their service? What words can you possibly offer to a Vietnam War veteran to balm a wound inflicted by a metaphorical knife in the back?

The blond and brown mops of hair once sweaty and matted under camouflaged helmets are now gray. The deeply lined cheeks and foreheads seem incongruent with the youthful faces in history books. Eyes that saw things that can’t be unseen have a hardness to them. They’re guarded.

“At that time, there was so much hatred for the war that it spilled over to the troops — we beared the brunt of the discourse, I guess you could say.,” said Vietnam-era vet Gary Park, who now runs Grandpa’s Footlocker, a military memorabilia store in Sherman, Texas. “ I wasn’t a combat veteran, but I wore a uniform, and I had some encounters at the airport and stuff like that — people calling me ‘baby killer’ and spit on a couple times. But all we were doing was following orders.”

Combat veteran Brent Kennedy, who served in southeast Asia from 1961 to 1963, put it more bluntly.

“How were we treated? Like s—t. When the Vietnam vets would come back, you’d arrive in the airport and still be in your uniform and people would just look away.”

The recollections of Park and Kennedy are a few of many first-hand accounts by area veterans of one of the darkest periods in American history. The two men are part of more than 100 Texomans who count themselves as proud members of the local Vietnam Veterans of America chapter.

“We don’t get together and tell war stories so much as just get together to enjoy the camaraderie and the brotherhood that we have,” said Park. “Occasionally people will mention what they did (in the war) but we don’t go into detail about things. … We’re big into trying to help out returning veterans now, help those guys transition back into civilian life without too much trouble.”

It’s a goal echoed by Kennedy, who expressed measured relief that the suffering of his generation had paved a better way for those who followed.

“There’s much better awareness for the guys coming from Afghanistan and Iraq because of what happened with us,” said Kennedy. “The guys nowadays are getting a lot better treatment. And they need it, they do. The post-traumatic stress that a lot of the vets have is being dealt with better than it was with us. Now, it’s actually being addressed.”

Veterans’ mental health issues are something with which Alice Hillerby is all too familiar. She spoke about her late husband’s struggles after the war as the nation moved on, leaving behind thousands of veterans who were rendered unable to do the same. Bob Hillerby, who died in a motorcycle wreck on FM 1417 late last year, suffered with PTSD for more than four decades, she said.

“There’s things that happen in war that most people just can’t understand what it does to a person. And it’s not easy to come back here and act like everything’s the same. It’s not. It’s just not. It never will be.

“(Bob) suffered for 40-something years with the issues associated with PTSD and Vietnam. And I really think the reception they got when they came back had quite a bit to do with it.”

For Sherman Museum Director Dan Steelman, that shameful reception was a driving force behind his decision to devote his museum toward honoring those who served in Vietnam. The museum unveiled a Vietnam-War-centered engagement earlier this week.

“I grew up during that time frame but I was too young for the war,” said Steelman. “But I can remember just how much confusion and how much turmoil was involved with the Vietnam War. And I just thought that this would be a good thing to do because these people went out and they put their life on the line for their country and they didn’t get the same kind of response coming back, the hero’s welcome that our veterans today are getting. So I wanted to do something to recognize their service.”

That “something” turned into a three month exhibition of war photography and memorabilia entitled “In the Shadow of Danger,” named after a book of the same name by Vietnam War photographer Richard Spangler, who lives in Longview.

“There are 80 photos that are … on loan from the Norton Museum in Shreveport, La.,” explained Steelman. “This is actually the first location apart from Norton to display these pieces, so we’re happy to have them here. Mr. Spangler reached out to us and sent us a copy of his book and I looked at it, I thought it looked fantastic, and I thought that this was a topic we could address.”

It’s a small bit of recognition that’s much appreciated by those for whom it was intended, said Park, who donated several items from his store to the exhibit.

“I’m just tickled to death that they were able to do that, cause it’s a big shot in the arm for the Vietnam vets. We’re getting up in years now, and quite frankly, they didn’t get much of a welcome return home when they got out, so now it’s about time we think about them and honor them.”

Hillerby said her husband, too, would have lauded the museum’s gesture. The widow provided Steelman with 56 pictures taken by SPC Hillerby during his tour.

“I think he would be thrilled about anything that brought attention to veterans and their sacrifices, I really do,” she said.

According to Park, his band of brothers in the VVA are honored by the recognition, even if it’s a few decades late.

“I’ve congratulated Dan and (Museum Coordinator) Chris (Rumohr) for their efforts in thinking about us,” said Park. “Most of the vets just looked at their service as something they had to do and they did it and came back. But they never got ticker tape parades or anything like that, and it was hard for a lot of them to overcome.

“At least somebody’s thinking about ‘em now. That’s the whole crux of it.”

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