Legion Escort Riders
Wendell Affield and Legion Rider organizer, Ken Kephart
Over the course of five days, while signing books and helping at the Museum, I listened to hundreds of stories as men and women reminisced about the Vietnam War and that era. I’ve come to realize that as we move into the autumn of our lives we want to make sense with our past. Universal themes emerged as I listened.
First, and most important, veterans reconnected. I watched this drama unfold several times: two men studying the lists of killed in action (KIA) etched on the sides of the museum trailer. Studying the same column, they’d begin to visit, gesture animatedly, and hug. They had served together—same unit, same time, and had friends listed on the Wall.
A man drove down from Baudette, walked through the museum, searched the names until he found his lost friends, then came over and introduced himself. He sat in the shade and began talking about his time on the riverboats in Vietnam. He didn’t stop for several hours; I was left with the distinct impression that this was the first time in more than four decades he had shared those memories.
A three-tour riverboat sailor from the village of Ball Club, confined to a wheel chair, spent the afternoon visiting and reminiscing. His body is ravaged by Agent Orange poisoning, yet his warrior spirit remains strong. His friend told me that the sailor used to ride motorcycle with the Legion Riders.
Another riverboat veteran came up from Minneapolis and spent two days with us. I like to think he personifies the good in most of us. He saw the sign at my book booth stating that I donate $5 from each local book sale to Bemidji Community Food Shelf. He read about the Community Meat Program I helped start at our local Food Shelf and handed me a $100 bill. “Life has been good to me,” he said.
On Sunday afternoon, just as we were leaving, a local resident who had served with the Seabees (Construction Battalion) started talking to me. He had read my memoir, Muddy Jungle Rivers. “You know that concrete ramp you talk about in chapter nine? I built that three months before you got there.” My words had touched his life, reconnecting him with an event from his youth.
These are but a few stories.
Another universal theme that emerged was from those who did not serve in Vietnam—era veterans and men who did not go into the military. It seems a common mindset for era veterans to feel guilt that they did not go to Vietnam. I say to them, we all did what we were ordered to do.
I listened to many stories about lottery numbers and near misses. These men often shared stories of friends and schoolmates they had lost in Vietnam. Many, many nonveterans visited the museum. They were fascinated by the pictures inside. More than once I heard someone say, “they’re just kids,” as they studied the young men poised on turrets and boat gunnels.
2014 marks the fiftieth anniversary of U.S. escalation in the Vietnam War, with the Tonkin Gulf incident on August 2, 1964. Looking back five decades, we were just kids.
The Mobile Riverine Force Museum opened a door to a side of the Vietnam War few people in our community were aware of. For me, personally, it was a very rewarding experience to visit with so many.
I encourage other communities to plan ahead and book the Museum for a viewing. Contact info at: firstname.lastname@example.org
For our community, making the visit possible was a collective effort. Beltrami County Fair Board was great to work with. Our Bemidji American Legion Post sponsored the Museum visit. Funds were raised through private donations and a generous grant from George W. Neilson Foundation. Our friends in Shevlin donated use of their lake lodge for the museum guides who travel with the display to stay at.
Thank you, everyone.