What: The Vietnam Experience: A Soldier's Story
When: Thursday through Nov. 28
Where: Petaluma Museum, 20 Fourth Street.
Cost: General admission: $3
More information: http://www.petalumamuseum.com
A Soldier's Story - 'The Vietnam Experience' at Petaluma Museum
September 17, 2010
The sudden and unlikely appearance of military sandbags and a pup
tent staked onto the well tended lawn of the historic downtown
Petaluma Museum here in the south of sleepy Sonoma County was
certainly an attention grabber this week, as motorists and visitors
to the venerable gateway to wine country stopped to take a gander at
a graceful, old, Carnegie Library building seemingly bracing itself
It takes a stunning visual to grab folks' attention these days and
the new regime of movers and shakers at the Petaluma Museum has
proved its battle tactics to be spot on in engaging the public to
take time from the fast track and delve more enthusiastically into
the far more compelling, rich, cultural historic avenues of our
country's storied past.
According to President of the Military Writers Society of America,
Tony Lazzarini, one of the saddest, though least chronicled eras of
American history, after the Civil War, was the Vietnam War.
Sure, we've all seen the movies: Apocalypse Now, Platoon, Full Metal
Jacket, The Deer Hunter. The Vietnam War took place over a decade
long period from 1964 to 1974, an era otherwise known as the heyday
of the hippie movement.... sex, drugs, rock and roll and all that.
The clash of two iconic cultures, a country at war vs. a country
discovering itself to the utmost extremes. But how is our perception
of the Vietnam Vet different from the reality of so many millions of
Now, some 35 years after the fall of Saigon, two thirds of Vietnam
Veterans are dead. "We're losing the remaining one third of Vietnam
Vets at a rate of more than 300 a day," said North Beach, San
Francisco-raised Lazzarini over Thursday morning coffee across the
street from the Petaluma Museum.
We'd taken a stroll in the sunshine during a flurry of activity in
which dozens of volunteers and museum staff were putting together the
final touches on a remarkably rare exhibit designed to honor the
dying breed that was in its teens to late 20s during the Vietnam era.
Unlike the blood-splattered, music-based Hollywood approach: "It's
important that this exhibit is well represented and that personal
stories are accurately told," explained the 25th Aviation Battalion
'Little Bear'. "It's time to honor these guys while they are still alive."
Lazzarini is an extremely charismatic man with so many creative
outlets that it's hard to imagine such a dynamic individual having
any time in his action-packed life to suffer the slings and arrows of
any small degree of post traumatic stress. But it's the creative
process that enables the prolific speaker/author/film
maker/playwright to continue with his life-long processing of the
highs and horrors of a 21 month tour of duty in Vietnam from aged 19 to 21.
"Veterans frequently turned to creativity to express themselves in
ways that could not be put into words," he said."Otherwise, it would
slowly eat you away."
Lazzarini described his own personal creative journey post-Vietnam as
a form of therapy. "War is so destructive," he said "It goes against
everything we believe." "We didn't come home as a group," he
explained. He was discharged after two tours of Vietnam in 1966 and
1967 and awarded the coveted Air Medal for Heroism.
"I went from the strong bond of brotherhood and constant night
missions to walking the streets of San Francisco, isolated and
surrounded by the negative attitude of civilians towards returned
Highest Traditions is the name of the book that Lazzarini wrote about
his roller coaster experiences in Vietnam, in which he flew over 250
missions as a helicopter door gunner on a UH-1D (Huey) helicopter.
At that time, the average life expectancy of a gunner in combat was
just 20 seconds, later improving at the slightest stretch to 2 minutes.
"How do you put the genie in the bottle?" he asked. "After all the
atrocities of war, Vets like myself returned home only to ask
themselves 'who is this guy?"
A long time Marin County resident, Lazzarini tackled life head on in
his trademark way after settling back into reality in the Bay Area. A
heady cocktail of risk, adrenaline and high speed action replaced the
thrill of helicopter missions in the form of race car driving.
Owner/driver of a 1970 XJ6 racing Jaguar, the former IBM employee
recently competed in a two day endurance race at Infineon Raceway,
here in Sonoma County. "I always wanted to be a race car driver,"
said Lazzarini. "Sound, movement, speed..."
Precision is clearly a major factor in this supremely successful
Vietnam veteran's life. "I have always kept myself within the realm
of right and wrong. When to shoot. When not to shoot. A lot of names
on the wall are not there because of these specific actions."
Dispelling the myth that the vast majority of Vietnam Vets came home
completely washed up and unable to contribute to society, Lazzarini
is quick to quote reference to statistics that the average Vietnam
Vet became "more successful than counterparts who didn't go".
Lazzarini diligently cleared the table in the coffee shop of our
emptied paper cups and napkins, a crumpled sugar packet. "I never
thought about not surviving," he said. "I was twenty-one at the end
of my tour. I was indestructible. And I couldn't conceive of
abandoning my friends, breaking the bond."
Back at the museum, an atmosphere of quiet calm had descended despite
the day's unfolding of a slew of media attention. "Nine million
people served in Vietnam during those 10 years, though only 40% were
in combat,"said Lazzarini. "This exhibit here in Petaluma is of great
importance." A swell of interest in the museum's exhibition in
anticpated now through November 28th. A series of special events has
been planned at the Museum, which is located at 20 Fourth Street,
starting tonight (Thursday, September 25th, 2010) with an opening
reception for Museum members and exhibition special guests.
This Saturday (Sept 25th) is Welcome Home Day at the museum at 1pm
featuring a city proclamation and a special presentation by the
Freedom Riders honoring Vietnam vets and the 15 Petaluma men who lost
Thinking of stopping by the museum to see the exhibit? Entrance is
free of charge to Vietnam Vets, $3 donation suggested otherwise,
though no one will be turned away. The film, "The Vietnam War" will
be shown at 1.30pm every Saturday.
Guest speakers, including Tony Lazzarini talking about his epic
helicopter missions (Sept 25th at 4pm), will be featured at 4pm on
Saturdays Sept 25th, 26th, Oct 2nd, Oct 3rd, Oct 9th, Oct 10th, Oct
16th, Oct 24th, Oct 30th, Nov 6th, Sunday Nov 7th, Nov 13th, Nov
14th, Nov 20th and Nov 27th.
'The Vietnam Experience' ready to open in Petaluma
BY LORI A. CARTER
September 15, 2010
It's a wound to the American psyche that still hasn't healed more
than four decades later.
But through the Petaluma Historical Museum's moving new exhibit "The
Vietnam Experience: A Soldier's Story," participants hope a measure
of solace can be achieved for those whose lives were touched by the
"Our goal is to honor the men and women who have served their country
and educate the younger generation about the sacrifice they made,"
said Museum Association president Joe Noriel.
When the exhibit opens today, visitors will enter beneath a red rope
holding 15 sets of metal dog tags tinkling in the breeze the
identification tags of the 15 Petaluma men who died in the war, the
red rope signifying their blood shed.
Veterans from Petaluma and elsewhere will guide visitors through
their personal experiences in the war and the often difficult
transition upon their return home.
For the most part, it avoids the emotionally charged politics of the
war, although there will be a display of North Vietnamese Army items.
"This is part of the experience," Noriel said.
Tony Lazzarini, a military author and veteran of 250 helicopter
missions as a door gunner, said exhibitions like this are cathartic.
"It's really kind of a healing process for some. This is what we all
lived through together. Like it or not, it's our experience," he
said. "The most important thing is accuracy. All Vietnam vets aren't
wild, crazy members of the Hells Angels."
A range of veterans and non-soldiers will speak each Saturday and
Sunday during the exhibition's run.
On Saturday, author Pauline Laurent will describe her experience as a
pregnant wife-turned-widow and her path to reconciling her grief as
her daughter grew to adulthood.
On Oct. 24, Kimchi Moyer, whose father was a South Vietnamese Army
commander, will relate the escape from her homeland by boat to
Singapore four days after Saigon fell in April 1975. She was seven years old.
Lazzarini served two combat tours shooting from the open side of a
UH-1D "Huey" assault helicopter. Just as often, he and his four-man
crew would be dispatched to rescue wounded soldiers from the midst of
"People always ask me if I killed anyone," he said. His answer isn't
a yes or no: "There are a lot of names that aren't on the wall
because of what we did."
The 63-year-old Greenbrea resident celebrated his 20th and 21st
birthdays in combat. He said it wasn't until 20 years later that
someone thanked him for his service. It came from a Vietnamese woman
who had lost two husbands, both pilots, in the war.
"She said, 'I want to think you for fighting for my country,'" he
said in an interview last week, clearly still touched by the sentiment.
The exhibition, which Noriel said is the largest of its type in the
Bay Area, includes historic artifacts, photographs and documents
interwoven with oral histories provided by local vets and others
affected by the war, including members of the local Vietnamese community.
Collections from the Pacific Coast Air Museum, the Petaluma Military
Museum, the San Jose Vietnamese Museum and the Sonoma County
Vietnamese Association will be on display.
It will be a "full sensory experience," Noriel said, incorporating
veteran-created YouTube videos, films and photos from vets, music of
the era, an interactive computer presentation of the documentary
"Beyond the Wall," and displays of soldiers' living conditions.
A series of 16 speakers will discuss their experiences on weekend
afternoons and the film "The Vietnam War," will air at 1:30 p.m. each Saturday.