Vietnam War Portraits: The Faces and Voices

Vietnam War Portraits: The Faces and Voices

Thomas Sanders
ARRSE Rating
4 Mushroom Heads
This book is not a cover-cover read, it is a compilation of stories from veterans of the Vietnam War, each with a memory of their time there and with a memento of their Tour(s). It brings the veterans then and now using their voices, their pictures and is a project by a professional photographer. Thomas Sanders did not serve in Vietnam but he has caught the ‘feel’ for the veterans with this series of vignettes.

There are 92 contributors, Army, Marine, Navy and Air Force but importantly, Vietnamese themselves who were caught up in a war between two major powers, played out in their land. Some give a bit of their story, other are just portraits of old men and, some women, with a memento.

The stories that each Vet tells are strangely similar, confused young men fighting an enemy who would not stay still. A major theme through the stories is the death of comrades, sometimes friends, sometimes newly arrived but unknown characters.

Tour lengths differed between the Services: Army did 364 days counting from when they left the USA, so if they left by boat then they lost a few days in transit. Marines did a slightly longer tour which only started from the day you reached Vietnam! Some of the tales are men who joined up some are from men who were called up – drafted, makes very little difference to the stories they tell.

One story is typical and short so I will copy it here:
“I didn’t much think about it. I enlisted when I was 21 years old. My younger brother enlisted in the marines the day after he turned 18. After training and assignment to my first duty station, I got order for Vietnam. My brother saw action and came back home so I figured the chances would be on my side. After all, being a Marine, with all that training, I thought I had a pretty good chance of being alright. My dad and all uncles had fought in WW2 and all came back. When you are young you think you are invincible especially if you are a Marine. Today at 74 I know better.

My tour was only five weeks. To this day I can’t remember any names of the Marines I served with in Vietnam, except the one who helped me to the LZ when I was medevac’d.”
Gary Estrella.

The photographs are of old men looking back at their youth, but the book is dedicated to the 58,000 men and women that did not get that chance.

I do like this type of book as they have that feel of authenticity. Young men, full of vigour, spirit and ready to take on anything very quickly reminded of their mortality. For many of those taking part in this project the act of being photographed and retelling part of their story is a catharsis for them

The book’s introduction is written by John Rowan, President and CEO of the Vietnam Veterans of America, and he puts the context rather neatly: “Many of us went peacefully into the night when we returned because no one wanted to hear our story. In more recent years the nation has begun to realize how badly we were treated, as compared to how they have received the veterans coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan. As a result, many Vietnam veterans have come out of the closet.” This sums up the idea behind the book and I commend it.

As I said, this is not a story about the Vietnam war but is a snapshot of a short period of the lives of some of the veterans, now in or approaching their 70s. I like it and if you like ‘Nam war stories, then have this to remind you of some of the cost.

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