Minnesota Now with Cathy Wurzer

Vietnam veterans sharing their stories at 50th year commemoration at MOA

Displays at MOA rotunda
Displays are up inside the Mall of America Rotunda for a 50th Anniversary Vietnam War Commemoration on Thursday.
Courtesy Bess Ellenson

A commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War begins Thursday at the Mall of America, put on by the Minnesota Department of Veteran Affairs. The three-day event includes a Veteran Resource Fair and a traveling tribute wall. And it also includes a National Oral History Project, with veterans sharing and recording their stories.

Marc Henderson is a historian who is working nationwide to collect stories of veterans. Chuck Jones is a three-time Purple Heart recipient and Vietnam Veteran from New Brighton. Both joined MPR News guest host Nina Moini to talk about the importance of preserving the history of Vietnam Veterans.

Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation.

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Audio transcript

NINA MOINI: Well, a commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War begins today at the Mall of America, put on by the Minnesota Department of Veteran Affairs.

The event includes a veteran resource fair and a traveling tribute wall. It also includes a national oral history project, with veterans sharing and recording their stories. Joining me now is Marc Henderson, a historian who is working nationwide to collect stories of veterans, and a local Vietnam vet and three-time Purple Heart recipient, Chuck Jones. Gentlemen, thank you both for being here. I really appreciate your time.

MARC HENDERSON: Hi, there. Thank you.

CHUCK JONES: Thank you.

NINA MOINI: Marc, I'd like to start with you, if that's OK. For those familiar with the Vietnam War, they may know that next year is the 50th year marking the end of the war. Can you explain to us sort of the heart of this 50th commemoration project?

MARC HENDERSON: Sure. So my office is commemoration that falls under the Department of Defense, and we were stood up specifically by Congress to primarily thank and honor Vietnam veterans and their families for their service in Vietnam, to give them the thanks that they didn't get when they came home initially.

And we record oral histories, primarily to ensure that the legacy of their service and sacrifice in Vietnam endures for future generations.

NINA MOINI: Sure. And so I read that you've been collecting the oral history since 2013. Can you describe why it's so important to talk to people and make record out of these stories?

MARC HENDERSON: Well, I love to use the hundred year rule. As a historian, I look forward to the two types of audiences that might use our oral histories in the future, and those would be either researchers that want to know more about the war or family members that want to know what their relatives did during the war.

And 100 years from now, 150 years, the war will be 150 years in the past. And I like to think back to the Civil War, which is a little more than 150 years ago in our past now.

And I'd like to emphasize that the war-- our understanding of the American Civil War would be very different if we had video-recorded oral histories of the everyday soldiers that participated in that war, more than just the generals or the officers. But everyday stories help create a much broader picture.

And so we're trying to capture that from the Vietnam War, put them on record at the Library of Congress because as a commemoration, our office isn't going to retain any of the things that we collect-- none of the photographs, none of the transcribed oral histories.

We give all of that over to the Library of Congress as our repository. Because of their archive, it will be an enduring entity for future generations to look up, reflect on, digest, and analyze just a more complete picture of the war.

NINA MOINI: Absolutely. And Chuck, you are an important part of creating that complete picture of history and making sure that it lives on. Would you tell us a little bit about your time in Vietnam? I understand you were a corpsman working to treat people who were wounded.

CHUCK JONES: Yes, that's right. I was one day in the United States at a restaurant eating steak, and a couple of days later, I was halfway around the world in a jungle, treating people that were all blown up. And it was a wide opening-- eye-opening experience. It was very traumatic, to say the least. But it was also a rewarding career that I had there.

NINA MOINI: Absolutely. And I understand you were also wounded three times before you were released and that you don't really always like to talk about your story. Have you shared your story before, and why do you feel it's important to share now?

CHUCK JONES: No. I like to talk a little bit about it. But I guess it's kind of to let people know that it was-- I don't know. In my eyes, it was kind of a goofy war because there were people shooting and blowing up the US guys and vice versa. And for what reason?

When I was in high school, my dreams and hopes were to play baseball. And through circumstances of screwing up my shoulder, I couldn't go on and play, but ended up joining the Navy because I was brought up as a Navy brat. My dad did over 20 years in the Navy. I had an uncle that was in the Navy for 20-plus years.

And whenever we had medical problems, we went to the Naval hospital for our treatment. And while being a patient there, the corpsman there showed me how to spin blood and draw blood and take temperatures. And I said, well, if I ever had to go in the military, maybe that would be a pretty cool job to get into.

Little did I know at the time that, as a corpsman, it was a very high risk job to get into because there were very few corpsman, and they were losing them left and right. But I got into the profession and field, and I really enjoyed it.

I mean, it was very rewarding because you were able to help people, take care of them, and also train them to take care of you in case the shoe was on the other foot. And I wanted to know that they knew what I was doing so that in my case, if I got wounded, they could help me.

NINA MOINI: Yeah. And Chuck, I wonder what you would want people to know, like Marc mentioned, 100 years, 150 years from now, what would you want them to know about the Vietnam veterans specifically and what you all went through?

CHUCK JONES: Well, I can only speak for myself. I get questions from kids all the time when I go out and talk at schools or whatnot. And they said, was this just like that in Vietnam? And I can only tell you what I did. Whether or not those movies are true or fictitious, which probably most of them are because they are only movies, I can't speak for them. I can only speak for myself.

And it was a very eye-opening time in my life. We had white guys, we had Black guys, we had Jewish people, and we all got along. We didn't see color of skin. We helped each other. Our main goal was to get out of there and get home and do what we had to do while we were there.

So that's part of what I can tell you about that, on my side. It was very traumatic. I mean, I was 18 years old at the time, and seeing people with their arms missing, their heads blown off, legs missing, traumatic wounds everywhere was really an eye-opener for me because I was never exposed to anything like that growing up.

And it was a fast growing-up period of my time because that was the reality of the era, of the situation at the time.

NINA MOINI: Yeah. Thank you for sharing that, Chuck. Marc, I'm so struck by the difficulty of sharing some of the details and the horrible details, but also the beautiful nature that Marc-- that Chuck mentioned about everybody getting along and working together.

When you're talking to veterans, particularly this weekend, what are you hoping to gain from everybody? And tell us again, where would these stories end up, so that everyone can have access to them? How many people are you hoping to talk with?

MARC HENDERSON: So we'll be speaking with 12 people this week, four people a day over the course of three days. Our interviews last-- we schedule about a two hour period. Most of the interviews last roughly an hour. But of course, there's a period of introduction.

And then afterwards, if the veteran wants to share photos or letters, we scan them to make them digital versions, which we can turn over to the Library of Congress Veterans History Project.

And their project was started as a grassroots project intended for average Americans across the country to record the story of veterans and get them on the record for future generations to better understand their military experience.

And their project originally was only supposed to last five years, but it's endured, and there's no end in sight for them at the Library of Congress. And we're very proud to be able to participate and hand over the collections that we're fortunate enough to collect.

NINA MOINI: Absolutely. I want to thank both of you so much, Marc, for your role in preserving history, and Chuck, just for sharing with us today and with the world your experiences. Thank you for everything, Chuck, and thank you both for being here.

CHUCK JONES: Hey, thank you. I was pretty fortunate, like I told Marc. My career after I got out of the military, I came back [INAUDIBLE]. I want to thank the military because I got into the radiology field and really had a great career in that.

I've done a lot of things that probably a lot of people never even thought of doing. And I went from being a corpsman to an X-ray technician, running an MRI department, and working with sports figures that I probably never would have got to see if I stayed in sports. But I had a good career in the sports medicine thing.

NINA MOINI: Sure. Sounds like you continued to help people, which is really tremendous. Thank you.

CHUCK JONES: Yeah, but the whole thing is, even though I have that there, I live with that Vietnam War daily.

NINA MOINI: Yeah. I'm sure.

CHUCK JONES: It's something that's in my head, and I can't get it out.

NINA MOINI: Yeah. Well, I appreciate you sharing with us. I know it must be so hard, Chuck, and it's not something that you like to talk about all the time, but through you sharing your story, people will know for years and years to come.

And we can take a look back at history and have honest reflections, which is so important to have. And I wish you the best. Thank you so much, Chuck. Thank you for your service.

CHUCK JONES: Thank you for having me.

NINA MOINI: All right. Take care.

That was Marc Henderson, who's a historian with the United States Vietnam War Commemoration, and Chuck Jones, a Vietnam veteran living now in New Brighton.

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