“For so long, we were not allowed to talk about it, we were not allowed to think about it, except amongst ourselves,” recalled Vietnam veteran David Kies about what it was like after he and many soldiers returned in the 1960s and 1970s from combat service.
That has changed over the years, and an exhibit to be shown Oct. 5 by the Grant County Historical Society will spotlight the county’s efforts in that war, including recognizing the 15 men who were killed while in uniform during that conflict.
A Salute to Vietnam Veterans will take place next Sunday with a program and exhibit of photos and memorabilia from those who served, as well as from soldiers’ families. The event begins with the doors opening at noon, with a program taking place at 2 p.m.
That program will involve several veterans, sharing their experiences, as well as the family of one of the soldiers who died while in uniform, sharing what they went through. The event will include presentations by veterans like Kies and Pete Finnegan, who are featured in a book and related documentary on Wisconsin Vietnam WarStories done by Wisconsin Public Television.
“We decided we needed to do something here because we didn’t have anything,” stated Grant County Historical Society member Ruth Ann Summers about the origins of the project, which came about when a fellow society member spotted a poster at the VA selling bonds featuring Kies, who had lost both legs while serving, sitting in a wheelchair and striking a pose similar to Uncle Sam.
Summers explained that the Cunningham Museum has parts of its collection spotlighting the efforts in the Civil War, in WWI, in WWII, but is lacking in spotlighting efforts during both Vietnam and Korea.
In putting together a collection for the museum, Summers said the idea came about to host an exhibit with many more materials, some of which will become part of the permanent display.
A lost son
The family of Larry Welsh from Muscoda, who at the age of 18 was killed while serving, will speak during the program.
“It is still difficult for the two girls to go to the cemetery,” Larry’s father, Harvey said during a planning meeting for the event. Larry was the middle child, and Harvey’s daughters took the news that he was killed in action hard, but they want to participate in the event to share Larry’s story, and what many families went through during that war.
“It’s there most of the time anyway,” Harvey responded on whether planning the event brought back emotions and memories surrounding Larry’s passing.
Harvey remembers the evening when Larry came home from working in Middleton and said he was signing up. “He said I am not going back to work tomorrow night, I am going to volunteer for the draft.”
Harvey said the upcoming event is special for him, and when he heard about it, his family had to participate. “I was just glad to see this happening.”
For the families and the communities they came from, the announcement of a death in uniform was devastating. In Fennimore, for example, the three young men who died all lived in the same neighborhood, the last passing away during training. “When he died, it was such a huge loss,” Finnegan remembered.
No longer silent
Kies, originally from Platteville, states that years ago, as a member of the Legion Post in the Madison area, their group looked to get into the local school to give out scholarships. “They rejected scholarships because we’re military and they are very anti-military,” Kies recalled.
For many of veterans of that war, there was a feeling that people just wanted to forget what happened, and while no one saw anything like people spitting on soldiers when they returned, he and others felt compelled to be silent.
The October program should help open the door that has allowed veterans to share their stories. “It’s therapy for us, it is helpful for us to talk about it,” Kies said.
Having to bottle things up can lead to further pain, Kies pointed out, as currently there are an average of 55 veterans and soldiers committing suicide every day, and suicide now kills more soldiers on active duty than bombs or bullets by the enemy.
Kies said that it is important to have events like this as the veterans of Vietnam are aging. He noted that now those veterans are passing away at a rate of 400 a day.
Good Soldier, Bad Soldier
A large portion of the display will be more than 90 images of soldiers in Vietnam by Army photographer and Fennimore native Pete Finnegan. Called “Good Soldier, Bad Soldier,” it is a group of photos from negatives he had shot during his 21 months in-country while shooting for Hurricane Magazine.
Back in the days of film, photographers like Finnegan would go out with reporters and cover a number of items in Vietnam, from informational pieces explaining things to soldiers, to spotlighting those in uniform for hometown press releases that would go to their local paper, to medal ceremonies.
“I would go out with a reporter for whatever story he was writing, be it a personal hygiene story out in the field,” Finnegan recalled, noting a piece like that would involve a soldier in the field posing with his shaver and M16.
Finnegan came back with dozens of photos on rolls, which the editors of the magazine would go through and choose the best one or two photos for the story. “The army would pick out the best one, and the rest would be trash as far as they were concerned,” Finnegan said.
He picked up the remaining negatives off the cutting room floor, wrapped them up in paper, and would send them back to his mother, a history teacher in Fennimore, who would gently organize and pack each set away in a trunk for her son.
Bitter about the war and what he saw, Finnegan had avoided anything that reminded him of the war, not joining the local American Legion despite the fact that his father had been the commander after he served in WWII and his great uncle was the first commander after WWI.
“I wanted to be the best hippie I could be,” Finnegan joked.
Now living in Madison, it wasn’t until 1998 when helping his daughter with a class project on the Vietnam Conflict that Finnegan went back to the house he grew up in with his daughter to search all of the items he had from his time in service. It was then that he had found the trunk that his mother had stored all of those negatives he had sent home. Finnegan had also saved the little notebooks he had taken notes on, identifying each photo.
“When I went down there, I started looking at these and I thought these are pretty good, I should do something with this,” Finnegan recalled, which led to his Good Soldier, Bad Soldier project.
The collection shows off the two sides of the soldier who served in Vietnam, Finnegan noted. One side shows the good he tried to accomplish, with things like giving collections of clothes they had their families send to villagers who they came across.
The flip side is spotlighting how soldiers dealt with the horrors of war, by utilizing drugs like marijuana openly, or visiting brothels.
“They could be the same soldier, just at different times,” Finnegan said.
The project has been exhibited across the state, including at the LZ Lambeau program at Lambeau Field in 2010.
The project helped rekindle Finnegan’s connection with his hometown, and with the veterans groups in it. A few years ago, during the start of the veterans memorial project in Fennimore, Finnegan started bumping into his father’s friends from the American Legion post, as well as those who were in high school when Pete was, who also went and served in Vietnam. Finnegan felt a connection with them, and joined the legion post his father once headed, and within six months was made the post historian.
Despite living in Madison, Finnegan drives to Fennimore three times a month on Legion business. He hopes the exhibit next weekend inspires other veterans of his era to talk, and to get involved.
“I hope it’s going to bring more veterans from the Vietnam era and get them more involved with the Legion or the VFW,” Finnegan said. “We all knew each other, but we went our separate ways. But we have that shared experience, whether it just going off to basic training and leaving the comforts of Grant County to see the world and be a part of that war.”
He continued, “Some of us put it behind us and assimilated, and that’s great, for others it was a real traumatic with the loss of friends. Now, we can come together.”