Many had kept war stories to themselves
By Meg Jones
May 12, 2010
It was through Sue Haack's typewriter that many families learned of
the deaths of their loved ones in Vietnam.
Assigned to U.S. Army Vietnam Headquarters in Long Binh, she arrived
to the war in January 1969 and left one year and two days later.
Sometimes she had to go to the morgue to help sort identifications
before rolling a form letter into an old manual typewriter.
"All you had to do was put in the name and address. It was such a
cold feeling. It was hell on earth," said Haack, 62, of Madison.
Haack didn't talk about her experiences in Vietnam as an enlisted
soldier for 15 years after she returned home in 1970.
Wearing her uniform - the only clothes she had - on her journey back
to Madison, she was kicked out of a taxicab and a stewardess refused
to let her on a flight until the plane's captain intervened. Why talk
about Vietnam when it seemed as if everyone was protesting the war,
Now, she and many other Wisconsin Vietnam veterans are getting a
chance to speak about their experiences in a documentary that will be
broadcast on Wisconsin Public Television this month. "Wisconsin
Vietnam War Stories" will air in three one-hour segments May 24 to
26, the week after LZ Lambeau, a three-day event and welcome-home
gathering at Lambeau Field in Green Bay.
In the documentary, she relates the fate of the soldier she replaced
in casualty notifications - he committed suicide 10 days before the
end of his tour. Though most of the names of the casualties were
unknown to her, Haack handled letters to the families of five friends
she met in Vietnam who died when their helicopter crashed.
Growing up in the small community of Dane, Haack left Wisconsin soon
after high school graduation and moved to upstate New York, where she
worked for the company that made Navy pea coats. Her brother called
her to say he had been drafted and was going to Vietnam. Haack said
she would see him there.
"I went down to my boss and said 'I need an hour for lunch so I can
go join the Army.' He said, 'No,' and I said, 'OK, I quit.' So I did
and walked two blocks to the recruiting station and joined the Army,"
Haack said. "I never regret one day of my military service. I just
regret the treatment we got."
A change of attitude
The reluctance of Vietnam veterans to tell their stories has much to
do with the anti-war fervor at home, said Kerry Denson, a Huey
helicopter pilot who served two tours in Vietnam and is featured in
the documentary. In the decades since the end of the Vietnam War,
much of the American public has become more politically mature and
separates the war from the warrior, he said.
President Lyndon Johnson's refusal to mobilize the National Guard to
fight in the war because he thought it would anger the U.S.
electorate had the opposite effect, said Denson, who retired three
years ago as Wisconsin Army National Guard deputy adjutant general.
"We know now if you mobilize the Guard, you mobilize America," said
Denson, 63, of Lake Mills.
The retired brigadier general talks in the documentary about the
importance of helicopters in Vietnam, the first war to so heavily use
rotor aircraft to ferry troops and supplies, conduct aerial
reconnaissance and evacuate wounded. His first yearlong tour was in
1967-'68, and he was three months into his second tour when his Huey
was shot down Aug. 9, 1970.
The helicopter broke in half and Denson suffered gunshot wounds to
his leg, severely injured his back and smashed his head against the
instrument panel. He was hospitalized for several months before
making a full recovery and making a career of the military.
"Do I have bad memories? No, I don't," he said. "I don't dwell on the
past, I always look forward. I'm lucky I'm not a name on a wall, and
I'm very appreciative and aware I came within inches of being a name
on a wall."
"Wisconsin Vietnam War Stories" came about after similar first-person
narrative documentaries on Wisconsin Public Television of World War
II and Korea, said Mik Derks, producer. For the Vietnam film, 110
veterans were interviewed, with 60 making the final cut, chosen to
represent all of the military branches and time periods of the war.
A gunner's story
Gary Wetzel, a helicopter door gunner from South Milwaukee, earned a
Medal of Honor - the nation's highest military award - for his
actions after his aircraft was shot down in 1968. Trapped by deadly
fire, Wetzel was severely injured while trying to help his commander.
Despite losing his left arm and bleeding from severe wounds to his
right arm, chest and left leg, he staggered back to his machine gun
and fired at the enemy. He remained at his gun until he stopped the
attack and helped rescue his commander even after losing consciousness twice.
In the documentary, Wetzel, 62, talks about the Medal of Honor he
wears on a pale blue ribbon around his neck. He says he's only a
caretaker for the medal that he wears for all the troops who served
their country. About his prosthetic arm, Wetzel said every night he
takes off the war and hangs it up and in the morning puts the war back on.
He hopes "Wisconsin Vietnam War Stories" will illuminate what the war
meant and still means to the men and women who served in Vietnam.
"Maybe once in a while people should take a moment and look back in
the past of the men and women who have taken time out of their lives
to give us freedom and maybe think about the price people paid for
that word," Wetzel said.
The three-hour "Wisconsin Vietnam War Stories" will air on Wisconsin
Public Television stations throughout the state with one-hour
segments airing at 8 p.m. May 24, 25 and 26. On May 27, a one-hour
special filmed at LZ Lambeau will air at 8 p.m. For more information,
go to LZLambeau.org.