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Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Vietnam Exhibition: Stories and Facts Preserved

Vietnam Exhibit. Photo Credit: Debbie Buckley. 
By Chuck Keller

This is about how two statements come together to complete a whole. First, George Santayana said, “Those who do not remember the past are doomed to repeat it” so we tell stories to remind ourselves of those important lessons. The second is that if we want to understand someone, then listen to the stories. In fact, our brains are hardwired for stories. That’s why stories persist when events and facts fade, but thank goodness that we have museums in order to preserve the events and the facts so we can continue to tell the story.  And when the two are presented in a seamless fashion, the result is wonderful - and that is why you must visit the Fort Thomas Museum in Tower Park to take in the Vietnam exhibit.

Deanna Beineke was the initial spark behind this exhibit that commemorates the 50 year anniversary of the beginning of the Vietnam War. She says, “In 2009, Jim [her husband] and I became involved in Honor Flight Tri-State and have since become Ambassadors for the organization; we man booths, help raise funds and organize the welcome celebrations for each flight.  Witnessing the humility and gratitude of those veterans for a simple acknowledgment of their service made me realize how much we owe to all our veterans, especially the Vietnam vets who were treated so badly when they came home.” 

Photo credit: Debbie Buckley. 

So as the Vietnam War’s 50th anniversary approached, “I brought up the idea of co-sponsoring an exhibit honoring our Fort Thomas Vietnam veterans and the chapter [the Mary Ingles Chapter of the National Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution] was quite supportive, as it is for any event or program concerning support for any of our veterans.  I suggested it to Debbie Buckley, who then invited me to a meeting of museum volunteers, and they were all very enthusiastic.” She said that “The Vietnam War Commemoration Commission is charged with recognizing the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War (obviously picked arbitrarily, since we all know there were "advisors" in country well before 1965) and encourages programs, ceremonies, and events to thank and honor all those who served and sacrificed.”  

She described the roles of other museum staffers and docents. “Gloria Sisk took responsibility for the "context" room and found all sorts of materials that laid out a timeline leading up to the war and creating a display that demonstrated how television brought the war into our homes in a way we had never experienced before.  That first room addresses some of the politics surrounding the war without making judgments, but it does help with context.  I took responsibility for the "story" room, for lack of a better term.  There are no politics in this room.  It is designed strictly to honor those who served and those who died.  I relied on Chuck Taylor, Carl Gillen and Jim Chaney, all Vietnam vets who have ties to the museum, for their expertise.  They all loaned artifacts, ranging from gifts they received to pieces of uniforms they wore while serving. Chuck and Carl also shared some of their stories for the exhibit."

What I love about our museum is the interaction with the docents. They love to chat about the exhibits and will regale a visitor with some pretty fascinating stories.  They make the history come alive with the stories of the artifacts. And let’s admit that an artifact is only as interesting as the accompanying story.  The 1960s was a time of intense turmoil in society, culture, arts, technology, race, music, politics, environment, and science.  It was simultaneously exciting and frightening. People who lived through the sixties are not ambivalent or neutral about the events. They hold strong opinions and feelings about that period and this exhibit tries to capture that spirit.

Museum volunteer docent and retired Highlands history teacher Gloria Sisk recalls that the Vietnam War was called the “first living room war” because the evening news heavily influenced the outcome of the war by announcing the daily death count and showing images from the war. She related an episode that she saw in the Atlanta airport as she was her way to visit her soldier husband. In those days you landed and disembarked on the tarmac.  When I disembarked my flight, another flight was unloading with soldiers returning from the war zone with their uniforms on. They were ‘welcomed’ by a group of organized protesters who rained insults and calls of “baby killers”, and actually spat on them.  I was shocked and horrified. I thought, attack the politicians and policy makers, not the soldiers. It was troubling and suddenly personal. Gloria said, “If you don’t agree with the politics then you can honor the men and women who did serve. The nation called and they came.“  This is one of many stories that she tells.  But she stressed that “We want folks to just come and remember.”

Photo credit: Debbie Buckley. 

Chuck Taylor, a volunteer docent and one of the Fort Thomas residents who loaned his war memorabilia for the exhibit, graduated from Highlands in 1961, joined the Navy to see the world, and ended up in Vietnam.  Chuck and I had a wonderful conversation at the museum one afternoon. He looked across the bowl from the amphitheater in the park and pointed to the mess hall. He said that is where he was inducted, took his physical, and was shipped out on a bus to basic training. The mess hall was essentially a one stop shop for all branches of the military. Eventually he was part of crew that flew all over southeast Asia on electronic counter measures missions whose task was to collect information. In other words, it was military intelligence work.

Chuck loaned his material because he thinks it is “important to let people know our involvement and how war has changed….People need to see what our generation did.” He feels an obligation or duty because it is “important to remember the past. We need walk through museums where you can see displays.” Why? “Because it is more alive.…” The visitor will sense the story of the person in the context of the events. It is the personal connection that creates the meaning.

Through his work at the DAV (Disabled American Veterans in Cold Spring), Jim Chaney met Debbie Buckley,the Renaissance Manager/Economic Development Director of Fort Thomas, and worked on several aspects of the museum as a resource. He is an avid history buff, military collector, print maker, and graphic designer. He served in country in 1968-1969 as a Navy hospital corpsman setting up facilities around the country. He saw action in the Tet Offensive of early 1968, serving in country in 1967-1968 as a Navy hospital corpsman leading a medical team comprised of himself, two U.S. Army paratrooper medics, and two nursing students from Hue University around 1Corps ('Eye' Corps). At twenty years old, it “was quite a responsibility with 2 1/2 months of training.” He smiles. About the war, Jim reflects that, “Everyone has a SEE moment, a Significant Emotional Experience, and I guess that [the war] was mine. Responsibility, camaraderie, friends. Some things were tragic; some were hilarious.”  

Photo credit: Debbie Buckley. 

Jim was prompted to loan his memorabilia because “it was important to them [the soldiers].To them it holds a story.” And these stories need to be told. “This exhibit is wonderful because the demographics [of the military] have changed.” The draft pulled in people from a range of skill, background, and education. Jim said that “I worked with guys who were morticians, theologians, shoe salesmen, even a masters in microbiology…. I like the way the exhibit works through the chronology of the socio-economic situation,the political situation, and takes you right through the war.”

Jim would like visitors to walk away from the exhibit knowing “That we’re just like them. It was a world away and a world ago. It was serious service….I am happy that it’s there. I am more than pleased at how it turned out.” 

Chuck wants a visitor to walk away knowing that “the sacrifices that were made at the time were not recognized. Now today when the troops come back there is a parade and everyone is waving banners and greeted at the airport. Back during the Vietnam War they were told not to wear their uniforms … so they wouldn’t be harassed at the airport. No parades.  And for a long time service clubs would not recognize Vietnam veterans. There was a lot of disrespect for people who went off and served their country and did what their country told them to do.”  Many soldiers felt abandoned  - by friends, culture, leaders, and, at times, their own military. We can’t change the past but we can make more thoughtful decisions if we learn from the past.

Deanna Beineke sums up the exhibit when she said, “I have seen other, larger, exhibits but we have limited space, and I wanted to create something personal.  Every artifact, every item, every piece of uniform belonged to someone with a Ft. Thomas connection and is authentic to the time period.  That is why every item is labeled with the owner's name -- I hope to elicit some visceral connections from the visitors.” 

Pay attention to how people react when they hear the words the Vietnam War. It is quite telling. You might hear words like counterculture. Liberation. Assassinations. Race. Protest.  Woodstock. Nixon and Watergate. Environmentalism. Space race. Homegrown terrorism. It was simultaneously an exciting and frightening period, but in order to understand the period we must try to understand how the parts played together to create that period. We need to hear the stories of the period.  And for those who lived it, it was, like Dickens wrote, the “best of times, the worst of times.” It is too much to tackle in this small piece, but it is worth discussing because if we can begin to grasp the meaning of that period then it can guide us through the next turbulent phase of our cultural and political development.

Museum location and hours:
The Fort Thomas Military and Community Museum is located in Tower Park. 
Hours are Wednesday through Sunday from 12:00 - 4:00. 
They will also open upon request by appointment as well. Call 859-815-8481 or 859-572-1225 to make arrangements.

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