APPLETON, Wis. (WFRV) – Tuesday is National Vietnam War Veterans Day, a chance for those who served to talk about the war and their experiences.
At Vet and Friends in Appleton, that is exactly what six Vietnam War veterans from the Fox Cities are doing.
John Koehler said he joined the Marines after dropping out of high school so he could get his life back together. He said this was one of the best decisions he ever made, although he acknowledges that going through the training to become a Marine was one of the most challenging experiences of his life.
A few years ago, he had the opportunity to visit Vietnam on a humanitarian mission to see how Agent Orange used in the war has affected people in that country.
Anthony Eckstein dropped out of Neenah High School and eventually joined the Army. He worked on trucks at an ammunition dump in Vietnam in 1971.
Gary Brynjulfson is from Appleton and said he was drafted into the Army in 1967. He was an Infantry Mortarman who rose through the ranks from Squad Leader to Platoon Sergeant. He earned a Purple Heart when he was wounded by shrapnel.
Dennis Van Hoof joined the Marines after high school because he said it was the right thing to do. He said he went to Vietnam in 1966 and was the leader of a rifle company. He said he didn’t know anything about Vietnam before going over there.
Jack Voight said he was one semester short of earning a degree at UW-Oshkosh when he got drafted into the Army in August 1968. Voight served close to nine months with the 25th Infantry Division in Cu Chi Vietnam, where he was an FM Secured Radio Sergeant in charge of 16 men.
He is now the Executive Director of Vets and Friends in Appleton which is a hangout spot for veterans that also provides services to veterans.
Jim Marohn joined the Navy right after graduating high school. He was a gunner on a Swift Boat at Cat Lo Naval Base in Vietnam.
“You can’t quit, you have an enlistment that you have to fulfill and you might have a stupid Sergeant but you have to work through it because either you or them are going to leave,” said Koehler.
“Everybody knew each other’s job and you had complete and total trust in what they were doing,” said Marohn.
Public opinion towards the war in the United States became more and more unpopular as it progressed.
All six veterans said they were proud to serve in Vietnam, but after risking their lives overseas they said there was no hero’s welcome waiting for them when they returned home.
“They (the public) didn’t think we were part of a war effort so a lot of us weren’t accepted,” said Voight.
“I remember going home and seeing somebody I knew who said I haven’t seen you in a while Jim where have you been, I said I was in Vietnam and he said oh were you one of those baby killers,” said Marohn.
“All of us are on that continuum of it was a big mistake and I’d go back again,” said Koehler.
“When I went to Vietnam, I had a job to do, I did the best I could,” said Van Hoof.
Several of the veterans said they spent years not wanting to talk about their experiences in Vietnam. Both because what they dealt with was traumatic, but also because public support for Vietnam War veterans wasn’t high in the years following the war.
Places like Vets and Friends where veterans with similar experiences can connect have helped some of these veterans become more comfortable talking about their wartime experiences.
The veterans also acknowledge that support for Vietnam War veterans has improved over the years.
“Our lives have lightened up and we’ve accepted our roles I think all of us have moved on from what occurred to us when we came back,” said Voight.
“People will say thanks for your service now and you never heard that 53 years ago,” said Brynjulfson.
The veterans also said that educating our youth about what really happened in Vietnam is very important to them. Throughout the year, they visit schools all over the state to talk with students.
Many of the veterans have been heavily involved in efforts to help other veterans. Several of the veterans that Local Five News spoke to on Tuesday are on the executive board at Vets and Friends. Brynjulfson and Koehler have helped out those affected by Agent Orange during the war.
About 58,000 Americans were killed in Vietnam.