Wel­come home, sol­diers

Lo­cal vets hope­ful new Ken Burns se­ries will tell `the truth' about Viet­nam

Tulsa World - - Front Page - By Tim Stan­ley

The “Wel­come home, Mitch” ban­ner on dis­play in the ter­mi­nal was, ad­mit­tedly, a big clue. But it wasn't un­til Mitch Reed saw the faces along­side it — his mother's and some other fa­mil­iar ones — that it fully hit him.

“I was stunned,” the Tulsa na­tive said. “I was like `This can't be for me.'”

Ar­riv­ing back from Viet­nam, where he had twice been wounded in ac­tion, Reed was pleas­antly sur­prised by the en­thu­si­as­tic wel­come.

Or­ga­nized by his fam­ily and friends at Tulsa In­ter­na­tional Air­port, his home­com­ing even made the front page of the Tulsa World the next day, June 10, 1969.

It was al­most 50 years ago, but to­day

“I want peo­ple to re­ally un­der­stand that war is hell, no mat­ter what. A lot of peo­ple die. And there's no need in it.” Viet­nam vet Mitch Reed, on what he hopes peo­ple get from Ken Burns' doc­u­men­tary on the war

Reed is still grate­ful for that wel­come and for the sup­port he felt his com­mu­nity al­ways gave. Home­com­ings for other Viet­nam vet­er­ans, as he well knows, were not al­ways like his.

Such as, for one, Reed's friend Den­nis Hoch.

At an air­port on his way home to Iowa, he, too, was greeted by “a bunch of peo­ple with flags and ban­ners,” said Hoch, who now lives in Tulsa.

“But they weren't wel­com­ing,” he added. “They were jeer­ing and yelling.”

As he walked from his plane to the ter­mi­nal, Hoch did his best to tune out the ver­bal abuse, hurled at him by an­ti­war pro­test­ers be­hind a fence.

“I just wanted to go home,” he said.

His par­ents, there to pick him up, were up­set by it.

“I just re­mem­ber my dad get­ting very an­gry. He said `Let's get in the car and go.' ”

The ex­pe­ri­ences of Amer­ica's Viet­nam vet­er­ans as they came home, at­tempt­ing to re­sume their lives, will be among many top­ics ex­plored in a new doc­u­men­tary se­ries pre­mier­ing Sun­day.

“The Viet­nam War,” a 10part, 18-hour film se­ries by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, will air on PBS.

De­scribed as “the epic story of one of the most con­se­quen­tial, di­vi­sive and con­tro­ver­sial events in Amer­i­can his­tory,” the se­ries will fea­ture tes­ti­mony from 80 wit­nesses — Amer­i­cans who fought in the war and oth­ers who op­posed it, as well as com­bat­ants and civil­ians from North and South Viet­nam.

Telling the story

Although they had dif­fer­ent “com­ing home” ex­pe­ri­ences, Reed and Hoch share the same “home away from home” th­ese days — the Mil­i­tary His­tory Cen­ter in Bro­ken Ar­row.

Both vol­un­teer sev­eral hours a week at the cen­ter, a non­profit mu­seum that hon­ors vet­er­ans of Viet­nam and the nation's other wars.

The pair talked to the Tulsa World re­cently about their ser­vice records, their vol­un­teer­ing and their hopes for the Ken Burns se­ries.

Back home in Tulsa after the war, Reed never talked about Viet­nam.

“I just wanted to re­sume my life,” he ex­plained. “I was work­ing, try­ing to pro­vide for my fam­ily. For 40 years I didn't want to tell my story.”

But about five years ago, in the com­pany of other vet­er­ans, he be­gan to open up.

Now, he said, “I love talk­ing about Viet­nam.”

A 1965 grad­u­ate of Rogers High School, Reed was drafted into the Army two years later. He left for Viet­nam on his 21st birthday, July 15, 1968.

There, as­signed to the 25th In­fantry Divi­sion, his job would be to drive an ar­mored per­son­nel car­rier, or APC as they were usu­ally called.

An APC's ar­mor shell “was thick, but not that thick,” Reed said. His two Pur­ple Hearts are ev­i­dence of that.

His first would be for shrap­nel wounds suf­fered when his ve­hi­cle ran over a land mine.

But that was noth­ing, he said, com­pared to what he had to sur­vive for the se­cond.

Car­ry­ing him and four pas­sen­gers, Reed's APC had been re­spond­ing to a night­time at­tack when its fuel tank was hit by a rocket-pro­pelled grenade.

The ve­hi­cle burst into flames, forc­ing ev­ery­one to evac­u­ate.

Reed was able to get out. But just as he did, some­thing knocked him flat on his back.

All th­ese years later, Reed mar­vels at how close that bul­let came to killing him in­stantly.

Strik­ing him in the ch­est, it passed within a cou­ple of inches of his heart and pierced a lung be­fore ex­it­ing through his back.

And with that, it had be­gun — the night that Reed would al­ways re­mem­ber as the loneli­est and most har­row­ing of his life.

From where he was ly­ing in the ditch — alive but se­ri­ously wounded — he could see across the road. Two of his com­rades were on the other side.

To his hor­ror, he saw that the men, who had been wounded when the APC was hit, were

fight­ing hand-to-hand with enemy sol­diers.

The enemy had swords. “I saw them both die,” he said of the two men. “And I couldn't do any­thing to help.”

For the next sev­eral hours, Reed was con­vinced that he, too, was go­ing to die.

At one point, an enemy sol­dier came down the road. Luck­ily, he didn't look at Reed too closely and passed by.

Just in case, “I played dead,” he said.

Fi­nally, at first light the next morn­ing — after two pre­vi­ous at­tempts to reach him had failed — Reed was res­cued.

“God had his hand on me that night. He saved my life,” said Reed, who was awarded a Bronze Star in ad­di­tion to his se­cond Pur­ple Heart.

Sev­eral weeks of re­cov­ery later, he was on a plane, fly­ing home to Tulsa.

Putting out fires

Hoch's ex­pe­ri­ence didn't in­volve com­bat.

He served in the Navy, and much of his time was spent in a sup­port unit of fire­fight­ers.

He was in Viet­nam for al­most three years, from 1967 to 1969, and helped put out a lot of fires.

“We had to deal with a lot of build­ing fires, grass fires, ammo fires, fuel dump fires.”

At one lo­ca­tion “the (Viet Cong) were set­ting fires to the grass around an am­mu­ni­tion dump. The area was mined, so we were try­ing to put out those fires.”

Hoch went on to serve six years in the Navy, two of them in ac­tive re­serve.

Now, he spends most days at the mu­seum, where he en­joys ed­u­cat­ing visi­tors about mil­i­tary his­tory and ap­pre­ci­a­tion for vet­er­ans.

Not long ago, a chance vis­i­tor to the cen­ter helped stir some old mem­o­ries for Hoch.

A for­mer Viet­namese im­mi­grant came by one day with her hus­band.

“I was giv­ing them a tour, and she kept look­ing at me,” Hoch said.

Speak­ing up sud­denly, she asked Hoch if he was one of the Amer­i­can ser­vice­men who used to visit her or­phan­age.

“She would have been only 6 or 7,” he said. “But some­how after all th­ese years she rec­og­nized me. I couldn't be­lieve it.”

Hoch said he and his fel­low Navy fire­fight­ers vis­ited sev­eral or­phan­ages while in the Da Nang and Hue ar­eas.

They came back to the dirt­poor fa­cil­i­ties of­ten, bring­ing cake and ice cream, and throw­ing birthday par­ties and Christ­mas cel­e­bra­tions for the chil­dren.

They even took them for rides on their fire trucks.

In fact, the vis­i­tor told Hoch that she rode on his truck once.

Hoch said he got a lit­tle choked up as he talked to the wo­man.

Which, he added, might be why he didn't think to get her name be­fore she left.

“I kick my­self for that,” he said.

He hopes she will come back in.

`What we were asked to do'

When he's not at the his­tory cen­ter, Reed can usu­ally be found vol­un­teer­ing for the Mil­i­tary Or­der of the Pur­ple Heart.

Com­man­der of the or­ga­ni­za­tion's Bro­ken Ar­row chap­ter, he led the re­cent ef­fort to have Bro­ken Ar­row des­ig­nated a Pur­ple Heart City, a sym­bolic ti­tle be­stowed by the na­tional or­der to rec­og­nize a com­mu­nity's grat­i­tude for its vet­er­ans' sac­ri­fices.

“We're the largest city in Ok­la­homa to have (the ti­tle),” Reed said proudly.

Maybe the chap­ter's most im­por­tant pro­ject is pro­vid­ing food bas­kets to vet­er­ans in need.

Serv­ing his fel­low vet­er­ans is the least he can do, Reed said. He's been for­tu­nate com­pared to so many of them.

For­tu­nate, first of all, in com­ing home alive.

Reed is still haunted by the two friends who died, while he lay there wounded and pow­er­less to do any­thing.

But he was also for­tu­nate, he knows, in what he came home to.

He's heard too many sto­ries from fel­low vet­er­ans to feel oth­er­wise.

“All the ver­bal abuse. Be­ing called `baby killers.' I re­ally felt for them,” Reed said. “We were the most un­pop­u­lar war there was.

“I was lucky. I was from Tulsa, Ok­la­homa, and peo­ple from Tulsa, Ok­la­homa, don't treat peo­ple that way,” he said, adding that he cred­its Ok­la­homa val­ues with how he was re­ceived.

His fam­ily even had a Christ­mas tree wait­ing for him at home.

“I had missed that Christ­mas, so we had Christ­mas to­gether,” he said. “In June.”

Reed and Hoch say they are look­ing for­ward to the new doc­u­men­tary se­ries. Each is hope­ful for what it might achieve.

“I want peo­ple to re­ally un­der­stand that war is hell, no mat­ter what,” Reed said. “A lot of peo­ple die. And there's no need in it.”

Hoch hopes view­ers' take­away will be “the truth.”

“I don't think any­body knows the full truth,” he said.

There is one truth that both Hoch and Reed will at­test to, though, about Viet­nam.

As Hoch put it: “Guys like us — we just did what we were asked to do.”

“And loved do­ing it for our coun­try,” Reed added.

Mitch Reed, 21-year-old son of Mr. and Mrs. Ol­lie Reed was greeted on June 9, 1969 by his twin sis­ter Mar­i­lyn (left) and a long-time friend, Mrs. Brenda Ver­non. Nearly 20 friends were on hand at Tulsa In­ter­na­tional Air­port to wel­come the twice-wounded vet­eran.

MIKE SI­MONS/Tulsa World

Mitch Reed, an Army vet­eran of Viet­nam, at first wouldn't talk about his ser­vice in that war, but re­cently has opened up about it.

Spec. 4 Mitch Reed, 21-year-old GI who was twice wounded in Viet­nam and awarded the Pur­ple Heart, was greeted at Tulsa In­ter­na­tional Air­port on June 9, 1969, by nearly 20 sign-wav­ing friends. Hold­ing the large ban­ner were Mrs. James Bevill (third from left) and Mrs. Earl J. Ver­non (far right), who or­ga­nized the re­cep­tion. At ex­treme left are Mrs. Chris Til­ton and Miss Joan Ver­non.

MIKE SI­MONS/Tulsa World

Viet­nam vet­eran Mitch Reed (left) talks with Viet­nam Era Vet­eran Dan Eiler, Viet­nam Vet­eran Den­nis Hoch and WWII vet­eran Os­car Nipps at the Mil­i­tary His­tory Cen­ter in Bro­ken Ar­row.

MIKE SI­MONS/Tulsa World

Mitch Reed, an Army vet­eran of Viet­nam, is shown in a photo at the Mil­i­tary His­tory Cen­ter in Bro­ken Ar­row.

COURTESY

One of Mitch Reed's pho­tos from Viet­nam.

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