For four decades, veteran Don Fernstrom told others very little about his service in Vietnam.
"They wanted to hear about it, but they didn't want to hear about [it]," he said. "So, that was the reason Vietnam veterans clammed up."
American attitudes toward Vietnam and the military are very different now. Those who served are respected and honored. Their stories aren't just valued. They are being recorded for history.
Fernstrom and others who gathered over the weekend in Minneapolis are part of the latest chapter in a Library of Congress effort to collect those remembrances of war. Over coffee and cookies, 11 veterans shared stories with volunteers at Paradigm Court Reporting and Captioning. They will become part of the Veterans History Project which includes thousands of accounts, all available on line as transcripts, audio or video.
The veterans sometimes ramble or digress as they retell their tales of war. But there's no denying the power of what they've seen.
In a 2005 interview at his home in Sleepy Eye, veteran Charlie Haug recounted for a volunteer interviewer that he was assigned to guard 20 wounded German prisoners of war. "One young German soldier had been hit with a shell and the whole front of his body was gone here ... I never saw anything like it," he said.
Collecting veterans' wartime stories helps others understand what some soldiers have experienced, said Fernstrom, 71.
"When people hear these stories," he said, "they'll understand that a normal life to a combat veteran is not the same as a normal life to the general population."
The Minneapolis attorney served almost a year in Vietnam from 1966 to 1967. His artillery unit was airlifted to mountain tops in South Vietnam to fire on people shipping war supplies on the Ho Chi Minh trail. They knew there was a risk of booby traps and North Vietnamese army troops at the landing zones.
"I mean you can imagine the adrenalin rush when we were going out landing on an LZ in the middle of a jungle not knowing if we'd be surrounded by NVA regiments or whatever."
When his time in Vietnam was over, Fernstrom said he realized he had formed a deep emotional bond with other members of the unit. Emotions ran high as unit members gave him a ride to the airport for the flight home.
"Everybody is so happy that I'm leaving, and I got very emotional," he said. "I was almost overcome because I didn't want to leave them."
He said his re-entry to the United States was rocky. He'd get the shakes and was uncomfortable being in large crowds. He had no patience for small talk with people about petty concerns who didn't know about what was happening in Vietnam.
"This is ridiculous. People are dying. That's what I thought. People are dying and these people have no concept," Fernstrom remembered. "They think it's just business as usual, life goes on, and I just couldn't relate to that."
It took four years of what he calls turmoil for him to get his life under control so he could go to law school.
Forty years later, there's a marked change in American attitudes toward military veterans.
Fernstrom said he visited the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C., three years ago with others from his Army artillery unit to remember friends who'd died.
A young military veteran in a wheelchair, missing limbs, rolled up to them, saluted, and thanked them for their service in Vietnam.
"We were all overcome. We went up to him. There wasn't a dry eye," Fernstrom said. "All these grizzled combat vets. We went up and shook his hand. We thanked him for his service. We welcomed him home. There were a lot of civilians witnessing this. I was thanked more for my service in Vietnam on that day than in the 42 years prior to that time."