WATERTOWN — A helicopter pilot through and through, Ken Rucki flew his wife to the hospital in a Huey rather than wait for an ambulance to come and pick her up when her water broke 47 years ago.
Thursday evening, days before Veterans Day, Mr. Rucki, 71, joined three other Vietnam War veterans, David Reid, 78, Pat Sheldon, 72, and David Hawthorne, 69, and school faculty for a panel discussion following a public screening of the movie “Platoon,” which depicts a cinematic version of the Vietnam War, at the Sturtz Theater on the Jefferson Community College campus.
Community members, professors, students, and veterans of the Vietnam War- among others, sat in stunned silence as some of the horrors of the war unfolded on the big screen, based on director Oliver Stone’s experiences as a soldier in the conflict.
“Platoon,” released in 1986, is a four-time Academy Award winning movie starring Charlie Sheen, Tom Berenger and Willem Dafoe. Following a platoon of American soldiers serving during the war, the movie addresses the physical, mental and emotional strains soldiers experienced and the methods they used to cope with what was raging around them.
According to Christine Grimes, associate professor of English at JCC, Oliver Stone grew up with a romantic notion of war and really wanted to be a part of it. He was sure that he wouldn’t be wounded, that it wouldn’t happen to him.
In 1967 he enlisted in the Army and requested combat duty and later, after he was wounded twice, he went to New York University to study film under Martin Scorsese.
When he wrote “Platoon,” Mr. Stone said that he wrote it to give those who didn’t serve and future generations a glimpse into the realities of surviving Vietnam, dispelling the romantic notions others might have had.
Mr. Sheldon was only 22 years old when he landed in Vietnam as a third class gunner’s mate in the Navy, and retired from the Air Force in 2000 as a lieutenant colonel.
“I remember thinking it’s five of us on the boat and we’re fighting for each other. It’s the same thing that’s happening in the sandbox now,” he said. “We’re not fighting for democracy, we’re not fighting to save that country, we’re not fighting to make the president look good, we’re fighting for our unit to stay alive.”
Thursday’s screening was made possible by a National Endowment for the Humanities Grant. The discussion that followed centered on the reactions of the veteran panelists to the film as well as their recollections of the war.
Through the good, the bad and the ugly, the soldiers in Vietnam developed deep bonds with each other in the water, the sky or on the ground.
“I was there for our guys, I flew all I could and I felt bulletproof — I swear I saw bullets go around me and the aircraft,” Mr. Rucki said. “I told the guys in the back if they’re not dead it’s because God isn’t done with them.”
Though the film did get some things right, according to Mr. Sheldon, other things shown came straight out of left field, like when a character shot a woman because her husband wouldn’t reveal information — which is a war crime.
Other liberties taken was the amount of partying soldiers were able to do while stationed in Vietnam. While they were occasionally able to let loose a bit, those days were few and far between, Mr. Sheldon said. Of course, that isn’t to say they didn’t get a bit wild every now and then.
According to Mr. Sheldon, the craziest thing he did over there was in 1970, when he waterskied behind a boat going about 35 or 40 miles per hour with some waterskis he had made in the woodshop.
“They had a cease-fire in the Tet of ’69, so I made some water skis and I had a tow line and I nailed some combat boots to the boards,” he said. “A Vietnamese patrol boat turned us in and I paid a $50 fine, and the captain in command said, ‘What if they’d been shooting at you?’ and I said I was wearing a flak jacket and had a .45 in a shoulder holster. He just walked out of the room.”
While this was a bit of lighthearted fun in the midst of deployment, the Vietnam War was anything but. Not only were young soldiers dying for the cause each day at the hands of the enemy, they were also being exposed to toxic chemicals supplied by the United States — one of the worst examples being Agent Orange.
A tactical herbicide used by the U.S. military from 1962 to 1975 and named for the orange band around the storage barrel, millions of gallons of Agent Orange and other tactical herbicides were sprayed on trees and vegetation during the Vietnam War to cut down on the amount of hiding places available to the enemy.
Unfortunately, Agent Orange ended up affecting American troops as well, just years after the war had ended.
Both Mr. Rucki and Mr. Sheldon experienced health problems in the past that were linked to Agent Orange: heart problems and prostate cancer, respectively.
Besides the physical effects from the chemicals used during the Vietnam War, many soldiers came back dealing with mental and emotional effects as well.
Mr. Hawthorne, a Canadian citizen and a Specialist 4th Class and tank commander in Vietnam at only 19 years old, came to the U.S. from Quebec to join in the fight and was in the country for a year and a day fighting alongside fellow soldiers.
“When I came back home, I couldn’t cross the street,” he said. “My mind wasn’t where it should have been, so just crossing the street was an endeavor.”
In addition to PTSD, the veterans of the Vietnam War dealt with something equally crushing upon their return home — the reactions from the American people.
“I flew in on a military aircraft and took a bus to LAX to take a flight home, and that’s the only place I ever got called baby killer and got spit on,” Mr. Sheldon said. “That sticks in my brain.”
He said he was very pleased to see people like his brother coming back from Operation Desert Storm treated much better than he and his brothers in arms were.
This was something all the Vietnam veterans could agree on, each grateful that a majority of the American people now show so much support for the troops and remember those who have fallen.
“The way some memorials are worded it sounds like everybody fought and died over there,” Mr. Sheldon said. “But we’re proof that that isn’t true.”