Tuesday on the Inland Journal podcast, 44 years after the end of the Vietnam War, many people are still dealing with its aftermath. Some of them gathered in Spokane last weekend for the national convention of the group Veterans for Peace. They were there to talk about their common issues and to share their news about their respective work. They led workshops, posted art exhibits, musical performances. And they told stories, lots of them.
Chuck Searcy flew in from Hanoi, Vietnam. He’s an American; he served in the military intelligence unit in the Vietnam War in 1967 and ’68.
“Like most of the guys in my unit, within a very short time, I turned against the war. When I left in June of 1968, I felt it was one of the most tragic mistakes America had ever made. When I came home, eventually I got involved in the anti-war movement, Vietnam veterans against the war," Searcy said.
Almost 25 years later, he found himself tied to Vietnam again.
Not everyone working on Vietnam War-related projects served in the war. Heather Bowser is the daughter of a Vietnam vet. She says he was exposed to the defoliant Agent Orange and believe her physical issues are linked to that exposure.
“I was born two months premature. I weighed three pounds, four ounces when I was born. I’m missing my right leg below the knee and several of my fingers and the big toe on my left foot,” Bowser said.
Now she is the president of the Children of Vietnam Veterans Health Alliance in Youngstown, Ohio.
“Growing up with a Vietnam vet father and then having birth defects, growing up in a small town, not knowing anybody like me has had its challenges," she said.
"As I’ve gotten older, I started reaching out, looking for more kids of Vietnam vets and ended up creating a non-profit organization that helps to focus on children of Vietnam veterans. We have about 5,000 people in a support group, other kids of Vietnam vets. And we work together to try to support each other because the United States government doesn’t recognize that children of male Vietnam veterans have been affected by their fathers’ service. There’s many kids, I say kids but we’re in our 40s and things now. We range from 28 to 50 years old," Bowser said. "We have a range of problems, whether it’s birth defects or chronic illness or cancers and all kinds of really horrible issues that a lot of people are dealing with on a day-to-day basis.”
Bowser says her parents didn’t find out about his exposure to Agent Orange until after he returned from his tour of duty in Vietnam.
Another person at the convention who was not a Vietnam vet and yet is involved with that war’s after effects is Ron Carver. He’s a photographer from Washington, D.C. who is the curator of a traveling exhibit of photographs that tell the stories of men and women who were anti-war activists while serving in the military.
This version of Carver’s exhibit received its first viewing at the convention.
Carver has also co-edited a new, which is just being published, called “Waging Peace in Vietnam: U.S. Soldiers and Veterans Who Opposed The War.”
He and some of those who shared their stories in the book held a reception at the Spokane conference. From here, he says he’ll take the exhibit and the book back east to several universities.
One of the men in Carver’s book is Paul Cox. Cox served two tours of duty as a Marine in Vietnam. The first was near the de-miitarized zone near the border separating the two Vietnams, fighting North Vietnamese soldiers. He says the second tour, deeper in South Vietnam, turned him against the war.
After his six-month tour in South Vietnam, Cox returned to the States to finish his military obligation. He was posted at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, where he and some fellow servicemen published an anti-war newspaper.
On one of Ron Carver’s photo exhibits about anti-war military members he tells the story of Susan Schnall. In 1968, Schnall was a U.S Navy nurse based in San Francisco. She cared for wounded soldiers sent back from Vietnam. She was responsible for planning an aerial leafletting campaign to publicize an anti-war rally in San Francisco in 1968.
Susan Schnall is affiliated with Veterans for Peace was in Spokane last weekend for the organization’s national convention. And so was a man who only had to drive about 90 miles to get here.
We finish this program by spending a few minutes with a former prisoner of war in Vietnam, Bob Chenoweth, an Oregon native who now lives in Moscow, Idaho.
Chenoweth was a helicopter crew chief who served two tours of duty, including the time when the North Vietnamese launched the Tet offensive in January 1968.
“The seventh of February, my helicopter was posted to go up to the northern part of South Vietnam for three days and fly some support missions," he said. "On the eighth of February, coming back from the first day of flying, we were hit by small arms fire from people we called the Viet Cong, the liberation forces. The helicopter caught fire in the air. There was an explosion. We crashed in a cemetery and within about an hour, we were all rounded up and captured by the people that shot us down.”
Chenoweth was ok. Two people aboard were hurt, one of them badly burned. The captors took their prisoners and headed up into the mountains. They met another prisoner there. They would travel some more, stay in mountain guerrilla camps and then get up and travel again.
“And we came up on a pathway that had ruts in it and it turned out to be a branch of the Ho Chi Minh Trail," Chenoweth said. "From that time we began riding trucks at night. So we rode trucks for about two weeks to get up into Nghe An Province.”
The travels continued with Chenoweth’s captors continuing to pick up prisoners until they finally arrived at a place where they’d stay for a couple of years.
“It was kind of like a prison camp, but not very much like a prison camp, not like you think of in the movies," he said. "We left there in November 1970 after the Americans tried to mount a commando raid to recover prisoners.”
Overall Chenoweth was held for about five-and-a-half years.
Doug: “How were you treated in your time with them?”
Bob Chenoweth: “I was treated well.”
Doug: “Were you beaten?”
Bob Chenoweth: “I got into a couple of fights with guards but I wasn’t beaten up to try to get information or anything like that.”
Bob Chenoweth: “No. What did I know? They knew what we knew. There wasn’t anything that a soldier on the battlefield in Vietnam could tell the Vietnamese what was going on. They knew.”
When Chenoweth came back, he was a critic of the war.
“My time in Vietnam before I was a prisoner convinced me that, first of all, we were not going to win because the people didn’t support us. People didn’t like us," he said. "And what we learned in training was to be afraid of the Vietnamese, not to see them as our allies or people we were trying to help, but to be wary of them, to be cautious because any one of them could kill you. So when you go with that kind of fear and stuff starts happening, you can do anything. And we did. There was a lot of that that I witnessed myself but it didn’t always make sense to me.”
Bob Chenoweth now lives in Moscow, Idaho. He was at the Witness for Peace national convention in Spokane last weekend. You can see pictures of him and others whom we interviewed for this story, in addition to other images related to this story, at the Spokane Public Radio website.
You can subscribe to the Inland Journal podcast at Apple Podcasts, NPR One or Google Play.