This month, PBS will begin airing a 10-part series on the war in Vietnam, by filmmaker Ken Burns. The 18-hour documentary is simply titled The Vietnam War. It explores the story of one of the most divisive and controversial conflicts in American history. Guest Commentator David Teska was just a kid during the war, but many of his memories remain strong, like missing his soldier dad for years at a time.
Guest Commentator David Teska is a retired captain in the U.S. Coast Guard Reserve (and a former KPR news intern). He lives in Lawrence.
The Vietnam War was a long time ago. Those of us in our early 50s are now the youngest generation with any first-hand knowledge of that time. Next year will mark the 50th anniversary of the high-water mark of the conflict. 1968 was a definitive turning point. January brought the Tet Offensive. The My Lai massacre took place in March. The increasingly bad news coming out of southeast Asia even shocked CBS newsman Walter Cronkite into saying the war was lost. By 1975, American troops pulled out and Saigon fell.
My family was pretty typical of military families. No matter what else was happening in our lives, Vietnam was always there... lingering. But we weren't alone. The Vietnam War was a collective experience for military kids. Upon moving to a new base or neighborhood we would always ask the other kids whether their dads -- and it was mostly dads -- had also gone to Vietnam. If your dad was gone, you were part of that group. And like you, the other kids knew how it felt. The stress. The uncertainty. And the myriad other emotions that go hand-in-hand with that kind of separation.
My father was a career Army officer. He served two tours in Vietnam and by his own account they were pretty unremarkable; he never fired a weapon and I doubt he ever saw the enemy. He swam at China Beach and got exposed to Agent Orange on his first tour in Da Nang and lived in Saigon near a major U.S. military hospital during his second.
Back then, without email, Skype, or even regular phone calls... we relied on letters and audio tapes. I recently acquired hours of audio tapes he made and despite his casual, matter-of-fact demeanor, the sounds of war are not far away: medevac helicopters flying over his building in Saigon... fighters taking off from the airbase in Da Nang.
My personal memories from those days are both fragmentary... and crystal clear - staying back from school one morning to talk to Dad on a call he had to book in advance; news coverage of the war on television and magazine covers; and lighting a candle in the window when the POWs came home.
In between his Vietnam tours from 1967 to 1968 we lived on the Japanese island of Okinawa, the site of the last major battle of World War II. We would watch B-52 bombers take off from nearby Kadena Air Base, bound for targets in South Vietnam, the huge planes roaring in into the hot Okinawan sun.
A few years ago, my father passed away from cancer. He rarely talked about the war but over the years, I managed to get a few anecdotes. He talked about making an unscheduled helicopter landing in a rice paddy... and hoping the Viet Cong weren’t around. Once, during a 4th of July fireworks show, he mentioned how the red flares reminded him of the Saigon skyline in Vietnam at night. And he talked about his Jeep stalling in the jungle... as his convoy sped on ahead and left him behind.
I look forward to watching the Ken Burns documentary. I know that for many, watching the series will be tough. But there are lessons to be learned from our experience in southeast Asia and I hope everyone, especially young people, will make it a point to watch. I like to think we went into Vietnam with the best of intentions, fully believing that we, as a nation, could find a solution where others hadn’t. But it was a complicated conflict in a world we didn't understand. And in the end, the price of war in blood and treasure was just too high... even for America.