October 13, 2011

My Vietnam Your Iraq – The Backstory

One of the veterans I interviewed for My Vietnam Your Iraq said, “I wasn’t in college and all the guys around me were getting drafted so I knew I’d be going.” That was my story as well. In 1968, a neighborhood friend of mine had joined the Marines and was killed in Da Nang only several weeks after he arrived. His tragic death had an impact on me and I realized that I didn’t want to end up in a combat unit in Vietnam. I passed my Army physical later in 1968 and while waiting for my orders I decided to join the Navy. I knew this was the right decision for me, even though the enlistment would be 4 years instead of the 2 years required for a draftee.

I hugged my mom and my dad and boarded a train from Chicago to Great Lakes Illinois on December 28, 1968. I spent the majority of the next four years onboard the USS Oriskany, an aircraft carrier operating in the waters off the coast of Vietnam. After each of my three WESTPAC cruises to the South China Sea I’d come home on leave and saw first-hand the growing resistance to our involvement in the War.  Whether we agreed or disagreed with the war effort, it was a confusing time.

I was discharged from active duty in 1972 and attended community college only one day after I returned home. I felt like a fish out of water as I wandered through the campus, but a serendipitous encounter changed that. I met a young woman in class that first day and we began dating several months later. Finding a job, going to school and having a girl friend made my transition home a positive experience. By the way, we celebrated our 37th wedding anniversary in June 2011.

Through most of my adult life I tried to forget about my military service. I was fortunate to have a wonderful family and good career. I also know first-hand that many did not come home and others came home with trauma and life-long injuries.  

In 2004 I was working on a documentary with John Mellencamp and there was a lot of discussion about the war in Iraq and supporting the troops, but not the War. Some of the band members were too young to understand that it was considerably different during the Vietnam years and it wasn’t uncommon for a veteran to be identified as a baby killer.

In 2005 I heard that there was going to be a dedication of a new Vietnam Veterans Memorial in my hometown, Chicago. I also found out that the Vietnam Veterans against the War (VVAW) would be hosting a protest a few bocks away and immediately after the dedication ended.

At the dedication I saw hundreds of men my age in the audience. Many were wearing something to identify them as a Vietnam veteran. The event included short welcome and dedication speeches from several politicians and dignitaries.   In addition, a military band played and an aircraft fly over completed the celebration.

Afterwards, I walked a few minutes to the VVAW protest. I was a VVAW member in 1972 and was curious why they were still active more than 30 years later.  At the meeting I heard a speaker offer assistance to veterans trying to navigate the VA medical system and I was happy to hear about that initiative.  Next a few young veterans who had returned from Iraq spoke out against their war. After the event was over and people were cleaning up and leaving I went up to one of these young soldiers and told him it was brave of him to speak out in public while still on active duty. He looked towards me, having a hard time making eye contact, and said that his dad would be very disappointed in him. I told him I understood but that I was hopeful they would still be respectful of each other. He went on to say that his dad was a Vietnam era veteran and had been so proud when his son had joined the Army.

While driving home to Bloomington I kept thinking how sad this was. I thought back to how my dad (WWII veteran) had reacted towards my negativity about Vietnam. He didn’t understand, but he didn’t let that interfere with our relationship. I wish he were here today to watch the documentary.

Within days I started to research the feasibility of creating a documentary that would tell stories about the pride, fear and other emotions between a parent who served in Vietnam and a child serving in Iraq. During my research I came across a newspaper story headline. It read, “He should be burying me.”  After reading the story I decided that I would move forward with the idea. The next step was locating families and the challenge of telling their stories.

As I reflect back I can say that the journey was a powerful experience and finishing the documentary was an added bonus. To be invited in their homes and hear their personal stories were cherished moments. The families were inspiring and thoughtful, struggling and successful, and every one of them is now a friend of mine. Welcome home.

Ron Osgood
Department of Telecommunications
IU College of Arts and Sciences

Ron Osgood's My Vietnam, Your Iraq will be shown tonight (Thursday, October 13) at 7:00 at IU Cinema.

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