Welcome home, soldiers
Local vets hopeful new Ken Burns series will tell `the truth' about Vietnam
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.
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.
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.
Mitch Reed, an Army veteran of Vietnam, is shown in a photo at the Military History Center in Broken Arrow.
One of Mitch Reed's photos from Vietnam.