Speaking at the National Veterans Art Museum

Art, Talks, Veterans, Vietnam
I tell the story of one veteran who has returned in my talk at the National Veteran Art Museum on August 2. (Photo by Mike Rhee)

Me telling the story of one veteran who has returned to Vietnam in my talk at the National Veterans Art Museum on August 2. (Photo by Mike Rhee)

Vietnam War veteran Don Blackburn reads from his book of poetry "All You Have Given: Meditations on War, Peace and Reconciliation." (Photo by Mike Rhee)

Vietnam War veteran Don Blackburn reads from his book of poetry “All You Have Given: Meditations on War, Peace and Reconciliation.” (Photo by Mike Rhee)

We had a great turnout for “Back to the Battlefield” at the National Veterans Art Museum in Chicago on Saturday. I opened the event with a presentation about the Vietnam War veterans who are living in Vietnam today and talked a little about the impact of unexploded ordnance on the country. Then, veteran Don Blackburn spoke about his life in Nha Trang, Vietnam and read selections from his books of poetry and essays.

The audience was enthusiastic and asked some great questions about the impact of Agent Orange and unexploded ordnance on Vietnamese people and how returning to Vietnam affects a veteran’s mental health.

Portraits of Vietnam: A vet’s perspective

Art, Veterans, Vietnam
Painting by Doc Bernie Duff

Painting by Doc Bernie Duff

I went up to Grand Haven, Michigan this weekend to interview Vietnam War veteran “Doc” Bernie Duff. Doc served as a medic in central Vietnam during the war and first returned to Vietnam in 2005. He was so moved by the people he met there that as soon as he got back to the States, he liquidated his home and moved to Saigon. Today, Doc and his wife, Bao Anh, work with impoverished children and Agent Orange victims in Vietnam.

Doc is an accomplished artist and sells his paintings in order to help fund his work in Vietnam. Many of his pieces incorporate sand and textiles from Vietnam, giving them a three-dimensional quality. Doc heads back to Vietnam soon, so I’m glad I got to see his paintings in person before he packed them up.

If you’d like to learn more about Doc and the thousand mile walk he made across Vietnam to raise awareness and funds for Agent Orange victims, check out this segment I produced on Chicago Public Radio back in 2008.

Painting by Doc Bernie Duff

Painting by Doc Bernie Duff

Painting by Doc Bernie Duff

Painting by Doc Bernie Duff

Native stars and stripes

Art, Chicago, Music, Veterans, Vietnam

I visited the Mitchell Museum of the American Indian in Evanston, Illinois this week and was surprised to discover amidst the cultural artifacts and ethnographic studies a display case decked out in red, white and blue:

Display case at the Mitchell Museum of the American Indian

Display case at the Mitchell Museum of the American Indian

The label read:

The American flag became an important motif in Native American art during the Reservation Period (1880-1910).

Called “the Grandfather’s Flag” by the Sioux, the American flag was considered a protective symbol both because of its association with the powerful US Army and as a means to demonstrate allegiance to the American government. Parallels between the flag and Native religious iconography, like the red and white striped Sun Dance pole, the Morning Star and the blue sky, also encouraged the adoption of the American flag design in Northern plains art.

What the label doesn’t mention is that the Reservation period was a period of great brutality toward Native Americans. Academic Michael Phillips writes that Native Americans were forced in this period to enter reservations that “more closely resembled a concentration camp.” Their minds were “reeling from the loss of their homes, the pain of battling for a lost cause, the pressure of white reformers who wanted to strip away their traditions and faith, and the fear of being under constant surveillance of corrupt and abusive federal agents.

Why would anyone in this disheartening situation chose to associate themselves with the stars and stripes? The key, I think, is in the label’s mention of the powerful US Army. Native Americans have been active allies of the US military since the war of 1812. The Defense Department notes that, “historically, Native Americans have the highest record of service per capita when compared to other ethnic groups.”

The US Census found that more than 82,000 Native American men and women served in the military during the Vietnam era, with the great majority of those being volunteers. Robert Sanderson, a professor of sociology at the University of Arkansas, writes that “For many Native Americans, the Vietnam War presented a way out of the cycle of poverty experienced on government reservations. For others, it was a way of demonstrating patriotic pride, and following the warrior’s path through active military service.”

The warrior’s path for Native Americans in Vietnam and elsewhere involved incorporating indigenous culture with American patriotic symbols like the flag and rally songs. When I was at the Veterans for Peace convention earlier this month, I got to see the product of one of these blends in person.

Three members of the Ho-Chunk Nation from the Four Lakes area came to the opening ceremony and performed Native American service songs for the Army, Navy, Marines and Air Force. Unlike the horn-rich marching songs of the US military, these songs incorporated traditional drumming and lyrics in the Siouan language.

I recorded one of the songs, which you can listen to below. Smithsonian Folkways also has a CD available of songs for indigenous veterans which includes all four songs and others written by Native Americans.

Three members of the Ho-Chunk nation singing at the Veterans for Peace convention.

Three members of the Ho-Chunk Nation performing at the Veterans for Peace convention. Madison Mayor Paul Soglin is on the far right.

Shadows of Vietnam in the suburbs

Art, Chicago, PTSD, Rotary, Talks, USA, Vietnam
Fallen soldiers memorial at Palatine Square

Fallen soldiers memorial at Palatine Square

I visited Palatine, Illinois today to speak to the local Rotary club about my research on Vietnam veterans. After the talk, one of the club members told me about a man in his woodworking group who was greatly affected by the US-Vietnam War.

Binh Pho is a Vietnamese artist who was imprisoned in a re-education camp for refusing to accept the Communist government after the fall of Saigon in 1975. He spent a year in the camp, as he writes, “to supposedly get my brain-washed.” After four failed attempts to escape Vietnam, he and 38 other “boat people” made it to Malaysia on September 29, 1978. It wasn’t until another eight months that he was reunited with his family, who had successfully escaped Vietnam and were living in the United States.

Binh Pho now lives in Maple Park, 60 miles west of Chicago, where he creates wooden sculptures and furniture. His artwork is heavily influenced by his experiences in Vietnam and as a refugee. In one piece the Rotarian told me about, Binh Pho recreates the view he saw from his prison cell to the outside world. Four seasons pass; the weather changes, but the landscape stays the same. The artist writes:

There was a period of time that I looked through the window and asked myself the question,”What is it like on the other side of that window?” I then just let my imagination go.

The shadows of the Vietnam War stretch far. They reach well beyond the families suffering from dioxin poisoning in Vietnam to the shores of this country and into its quietest of suburbs.

An investigation conducted by the Orange County Register found that 1 million people were imprisoned without formal trials after the fall of Saigon, with one in three South Vietnamese families having a relative in a re-education camp. The US State Department reports that 34,641 former prisoners found a new home in America after leaving the camps. Others were not so lucky. Studies have estimated that 165,000 people died in the camps.

Who are veterans?

Art, Chicago, PTSD, Veterans, Vietnam

I’m often asked what Vietnam veterans are like. Are they angry? Are they proud of their service? Are they stronger for their time at war? Or haunted by what they did and saw?

The answer is yes. Over 2.7 million American men and women went to Vietnam in the years the US fought there, and their personalities are as diverse as their experiences. The war will have affected a man who fought in the jungles very differently from one who sat in an office in Saigon or loaded artillery onto planes. Even among men who held similar positions or fought in the same area of Vietnam, individuals will perceive what they did there differently.

Earlier this month, Army veteran David Eisler advocated in The New York Times’ “At War” column for a more nuanced conversation about the identity of veterans. He wrote:

If you listen closely to the national conversation about today’s veterans, you will hear two stories that seem to be at odds with each other.

One story is about healthy, hard-working, disciplined, well-trained and experienced veterans who would be an asset to any business or organization. The other tells of broken, disabled, traumatized veterans who have physical and behavioral health issues and require constant care and supervision.

Eisler served in Iraq and Afghanistan between 2007 and 20012, and his argument is  geared more toward victims of these new conflicts — who are now searching for civilian jobs — rather than the often-retired Vietnam veterans. But his point is a good one. You needn’t look very far to see these mixed messages about who veterans are in advertisements, the media or even our city boulevards.

Amidst the usual panhandlers on State Street, I was struck by an unusual trio outside a cosmetics store on Friday night. Two teenage boys and an older bearded man sat in matching military fatigues, heckling passersby. They held a cardboard sign, on which, I assumed, was scrawled descriptions of their war service and tragedies faced since returning. While veterans make up 7% of the US population, they represent 13% of homeless people. The majority of those homeless veterans live in urban areas like Chicago.

Yet, when I got closer I saw that their handmade sign had only one word: SMILE. The men called to the shoppers, the tourists, the secretaries and bankers trudging home after a week’s work: “Be happy.”

It was a simple message coming from a complex group.

Head Spirit by Gregory Van Maanen

“Head Spirit” by Gregory Van Maanen (1986). Gregory served in the Vietnam War as a rifleman between 1968 and 1969. This piece is shown at the NVAM alongside a letter he wrote: “I guess I’ve been hiding for 18 years since I got out of the Army. But I’ve put it to good use — Art. I’ve given it my all, and I’m still going. How, I don’t know, I don’t question it. After that Vietnam experience, there’s nothing else that makes sense. Again, that’s a long involved story.”