Gary Tuescher began his Memorial Day ceremony speech in Platteville with a sign he saw at the Tan Son Nhut airport in Saigon, South Vietnam.
The sign was at the entrance to a section where the bodies of American war dead were prepared for transport to the U.S. and their burials.
The sign said: We were young. We died. Remember us.
What Tuescher calls his failure to remember them years later led, he says, to “being visited by ghosts … never saying anything, just staring at me with disgust because I wasn’t remembering. I committed the sin of forgetting.”
“Now I think of them daily, and I weep for them often. I think of those guys, the 10,000 that died when I was there, and I think it’ll be 50 years since I was there. I feel guilt that I survived. I was lucky, and they weren’t.”
Tuescher, who lives in Platteville, served in the U.S. Army in Vietnam in 1966 and 1967, though he didn’t see combat. He was assigned to the 4th Transportation Command in Saigon, which ran port facilities.
“I picked people up at the helicopters, and I dropped people off at the helicopters,” he said. “I fought the war with my typewriter.”
Tuescher, a Darlington native, was drafted before he attended UW–Platteville, but got student deferments. He had just started graduate school at Northern Illinois University.
“I got in two weeks, got my draft notice,” he said. “I noticed I didn’t have enough money to last through the semester.”
Army soldiers assigned to administrative tasks outnumbered field soldiers about 10 to 1, he said.
“Like soldiers in the Civil War, it was a lot of boredom, and then fight,” he said. “But it wasn’t like that for us paper-pushers.
“Every day I’d come across the names of those that were killed, and I’d read them aloud so people would have to hear their names. There were a lot of soldiers that died the first day they were there.”
One main feature of American forces in Vietnam was “thousands and thousands of helicopters. And I thought what if I’d applied to helicopter school. I’d probably have gotten killed.”
Tuescher’s scariest Vietnam moment was when he was assigned to deliver papers to a unit. The road to the unit was the site of two combat deaths a few weeks before his drive. His commanding officer offered him a rifle for the trip.
“It was always hot and humid, and there was a rainy season,” he said. “It would rain for a half-hour and then stop, and then a few hours later it’d rain again. You always felt moldy.”
Tuescher was commanded by officers, and “Just like every other place, there are really good officers and not-so-good officers. For the most part I got along well with them and they were pretty bright, but there were some Patton types who thought they could fight the war themselves.”
Tuescher returned to the U.S. in September 1967, where he experienced some of the contempt some who opposed the Vietnam War took out on its soldiers. “A little bit — not in Platteville, but coming home through Oakland and San Francisco,” he said. “People didn’t support he war, and they saw people in uniform; I didn’t get harassed like some did.
“There were no parades when we got back. People in Platteville were friendly to me, but we didn’t talk about it.”
Almost four decades later, Tuescher, then a successful photographer, went to Washington, D.C., but passed up the opportunity to see the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. That’s when the visits from his ghosts began.
Then, in 2009, the Vietnam Moving Wall came to Platteville. Tuescher’s daughter-in-law, Colleen, took a photo of his grandson, Paxton, there. Tuescher discovered upon looking at the photos a golden reflection of the sun where Paxton touched the display.
“She said I could probably fix that imperfection,” he said. “And I said, no, its imperfection is its perfection.
“I believe the gold ball around his hand was a blessing from God for all the soldiers on the wall, and it was done through the hand of a little boy. I treasure that picture. It sits on my desk and I touch that gold ball every morning just to remember.”
Tuescher quotes historian Bruce Catton, who compared the Civil War Battle of Antietam, fought near Sharpsburg, Md., in 1862, to Vietnam. Antietam was the bloodiest one-day battle in U.S. history, with, between Union and Confederate forces, nearly 23,000 casualties, one in four soldiers who fought in the battle.
“Why do they do that?” he said. “And he said this is because they are my buddies. And I’ll not stay back. There was such camaraderie among the troops.
“I talked to a lot of soldiers over here, what it was like, and they said that very thing — they’d do anything for their buddies; they’d die for their buddies.”
The Vietnam War as an active conflict ended in March 1973. Two years later, South Vietnam fell to North Vietnam.
“It was one of the first wars we didn’t win,” said Tuescher. “I don’t know if they blamed the soldiers; maybe they blamed the politicians, and the politicians didn’t want to admit it was a mistake. Fifty-eight thousand died, and now we’re friends with Vietnam.
“Obviously there were a lot of people against the war, and I’m not mad at them. If you’re trying to escape because you’re afraid, I don’t respect that. But if you’re willing to go to jail or go to Canada, I can respect that. If you don’t want to go because you don’t want to go into the Army, I don’t have any respect for that.”
Almost 20 years after the Vietnam War ended came Operation Desert Storm, followed a decade later by wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Tuescher speaks to veterans of his and later wars in part because he didn’t take advantage of the opportunity to talk to his uncle, a World War II veteran, about that war.
“That’s one regret — I thought I should interview him, and I never did,” he said. “That’s why I tell people to ask a veteran.
“There are still people in Platteville who are suffering from that — my buddies died and I didn’t. Those that were in the heat of battle didn’t talk about it much, and they bear the scars. We can help that — we’re not professional counselors, but you don’t have to be a psychiatrist. Just listen. Show them that you care.”
The other thing Tuescher wants people to do is thank a veteran. He was at a Winona State University softball game one year ago, wearing a Vietnam cap, when a woman came up to him and thanked him for his service.
“Nobody had ever done that before,” he said. “It was a powerful feeling. That’s how you can celebrate veterans; thank them for their service.”