“The Vietnam War,” a compelling 10-episode, 18-hour film by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick that was recently broadcast on Redding public TV station KIXE and PBS stations across the country, recently helped bring that tumultuous time back into focus for many in the north state.
At noon Tuesday in the Shasta College Theater, the Shasta College Foundation plans to bring the Vietnam War into even closer focus by hosting a panel of five north state residents who lived the war experience. Chris Rodriguez, a history instructor at Shasta College, will serve as MC and help guide the Q&A session that will follow the panel discussion. The event is free.
The hope is to bring history to life, Rodriguez said. Shasta College students, other veterans and interested community members should all be able to benefit from the discussion, he said. “We have these stories from over 50 years ago, by people who actually experienced it.”
Scott Thompson, executive director of the Shasta College Foundation, introduced the idea of a Vietnam veterans panel some six months ago, when the PBS film series was announced, Rodriguez said. “We wanted to get local stories. There are so many here, and they need to be heard.”
Former Redding Mayor Mike Dahl, who enlisted in the Marine Corps as a 20-year-old and arrived “in country” on Christmas Eve in 1967, said he hopes the younger audience members can learn a little more about the war. “For the young, this war is a part of history, but it’s different than World War II. It’s just a footnote—part of the crazy ’60s,” Dahl said. “This is a good opportunity to learn about the war and learn about the veterans who were a part of that war.”
It’s just not a history lesson, though. “All of us who participated were young, like these college students. Many of us came back and went to school, just like there are (Afghanistan and Iraq) veterans now in school,” said Dahl, adding that the younger veterans can compare and contrast their experiences.
After serving two tours in Vietnam, Dahl returned to Redding and started at Shasta College in 1970. “There were several veterans in my age group, and other students in our age group, but it was like we were in parallel universes. It was hard for us to relate to each other. Maybe after 40 or 50 years, we have a better idea of what that experience was like.”
Dahl also plans to touch on post traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, which he said affected “anyone who experienced combat and prolonged stress” and the impact PTSD had on families. Some 46 Shasta County residents gave the ultimate sacrifice in Vietnam, including 18 from Shasta High School alone. “Every high school in Shasta County lost guys,” Dahl said.
“It was a very complicated war and for every question that gets answered, two more pop up,” Dahl said.
Mike Stuart, a former Enterprise High principal and Shasta Union High Scholl District superintendent, also will be part of the panel. Stuart volunteered for the draft at age 19 and served as an Army paratrooper in the 101st Airborne Division, rising to the rank of sergeant. He was in Vietnam from August 1967 to March of 1968 when he was honorably discharged.
Stuart said he hopes participants come away with an understanding “that most people who served in Vietnam served honorably. I hope they understand the difference between the political—should we have been there?—and separate that from the performance of the US troops that was mostly honorable.”
The decision to serve in Vietnam was a simple one, Stuart said, since he was part of a large Irish-Catholic family with a long history of military service. Stuart’s father and six of his uncles fought in World War II.
Upon returning to his home in Santa Clara, Stuart said he didn’t experience any of the verbal or physical attacks that many returning Vietnam vets did, nor did he publicly broadcast his status as an ex-soldier.
“Once I started college, it was best that nobody knew you were a Vietnam vet. Girls thought you were a rapist and a murderer. The thought was it was an immoral war, therefore we were immoral. It was not fair and it wasn’t pleasant, but you just deal with it and move on with your life,” Stuart said.
The country has matured since Vietnam, Stuart said. “We’re in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and people disagree with that, but they don’t take it out on soldiers like they did back then.” He was quick to add that he “never had an ounce of self-pity” nor did he feel remorseful about his service.
Greg Caldwell, another panelist, also saw combat in Vietnam as a Marine infantryman. He enlisted at age 19 and served a 13-month tour. Did he see action? “When you’re a grunt, that’s what you do. That’s the deal.”
Attitudes about the war changed as it dragged on and casualties mounted, Caldwell said. “I was there in ’69 and ’70, when protests were really going, but if you were there in ’65, it was a whole separate set of parameters.”
Caldwell said he remembers hearing a few snide remarks when he returned to Redding but he tried not to dwell on it. “When it was at the forefront of my life, I shoved it away. I don’t know … your friends and people who knew you didn’t treat you any differently. I wouldn’t talk about it—you couldn’t explain it to anybody who hadn’t been there anyway. You pretty much stayed mum.”
Also on the panel will be Meycho Chao-Lee, a native of northern Laos whose father fought against the communist regime during the Vietnam war. Meycho and her family crossed into Thailand and endured several years of hard life in the Phanat Nikhom Refugee Camp before attaining political asylum and permission to emigrate to the United States in 1982. Meycho, a mother of three, is a licensed clinical social worker and program coordinator for the Shasta County Health and Human Services Agency.
The fifth panelist is Imam Abu Bakr Salahuddin of Redding, a Vietnam vet who was wounded three times. Salahuddin converted to Islam in 1968 and was instrumental in establishing the Islamic Center of Redding.
The Shasta College Foundation has partnered with KIXE and the McConnell Foundation to bring a voice to the local Vietnam experience through “Vietnam Shasta Stories.” Stories from 10 panelists, Laotian veterans and family members have been recorded and can be viewed on KIXE’s YouTube channel by visiting www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL1I2ssgLpWkF8YjJbkJjSTpdKAuaK5yrJ