by Gary Fouse
Two of my close friends from high school were killed in Vietnam. Because I had written about them on my blog, I was recently contacted by a group of volunteer researchers who are working on a project called Wall of Faces. Working under the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund (VVMF), the goal of the project is to put a photo behind the names of 58,000 killed in action, over 800 are not represented by photos. Thus, these researchers scour through old high school year books, training class photos, obituaries, and mortuary records, attempting to contact old friends, any way they can to come up with a photo.
It turned out that one of the missing was one of my friends from high school, Michael G Vinassa, who died at the age of 19 while taking out a machine gun nest during Operation Crazy Horse in 1966. For that he was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross. While I myself had no photo of Mike, I gladly provided what leads I could and joined in the hunt. Eventually, a mutual close friend from high school, now living in Wisconsin, came up with a 1959 photo of Mike in his junior high school yearbook. Mike was 13 years old at the time. It was a very satisfying moment for everybody concerned since Mike’s photo had been an especially hard one to locate. (He had no surviving relatives.)
This, of course, has caused me to reflect back on the Vietnam War and those who died. The other friend who was killed happened to die while I was on home leave from my own Army assignment in Germany. Thus, I was able to attend his funeral (1967). With no disrespect to all the Vietnamese casualties, it has been an emotional experience looking through so many photos of all those young men who gave their lives at such an early age. And how can we forget what that war did to our country? There was so much opposition to the war, protests everywhere, and worst of all, returning troops were insulted and sometimes spat upon.
In some measure, our entire generation was scarred by Vietnam, most of all, of course, those who died and their families. Those who returned have also been scarred to varying degrees, and in so many cases, we have witnessed the walking wounded among us. Even those of our generation who did not go to Vietnam or never served in uniform would be hard pressed to say the war never impacted their lives in some degree or another. While I am proud of my military service, I always hold a higher respect to those who actually went to Vietnam.
It’s strange, but even while I was in the Army, I couldn’t make up my mind whether I supported the war or not. To this day, I have not come to a final conclusion. I had no desire to go to Vietnam, but becoming a draft dodger or running off to Canada or Sweden was never a consideration for me. For those who took that course, I never had any respect, and I still consider Jane Fonda to have acted as a traitor for her actions in going to Hanoi.
It is easy to say that those 58,000 Americans died in vain since we walked away and allowed the North Vietnamese to later overrun the South. What did we gain? What did we prevent from happening? Yet, Vietnam must be considered within the context of the Cold War. That and our other military ventures, however controversial, were conducted to prevent one country after another from falling to Communism. I still maintain that had the USSR prevailed in the Cold War, no country on Earth would be living in freedom today.
Yes, Vietnam has been on my mind a lot these days. I keep thinking about the Mel Gibson movie, “We Were Soldiers….and We Were Young” and its haunting and beautiful theme score. It brings tears to your eyes. At least this movie honored our soldiers- unlike many other Vietnam-themed movies that portrayed our soldiers as murderous psychos. Those movies, however well produced they may have been, were trash.
I close this piece with a request. If you knew someone who died in Vietnam and have a photo, please go to this VVMF website and check to see if they have a photo on file. If they don’t, you can fill that void. It is a shame that there are over 800 of our Vietnam dead who have no photo to be displayed.