DALLAS — Old soldiers and their emotional stories filled the main hangar Tuesday at the Frontiers of Flight Museum in Dallas. And, with the help of a new set of soldier portraits, there is hope those stories, memories and lessons will not fade away so easily.
The museum hosted a 50th commemoration of the end of the Vietnam War. March 29th is National Vietnam War Veterans Day. The last U.S. combat troops left South Vietnam on March 29, 1973.
"We Americans take care of each other," Army Capt. Allen B. Clark (Ret.) said in his comments to the assembled crowd of Vietnam Veterans and their families. He was referring to the 25 soldiers who volunteered to donate blood to save his life after enemy mortar fire on his Special Forces camp in June 1967 left him a double leg amputee.
"There's probably not a day goes by that I don't think about it," he said to WFAA.
And those memories are now captured in a new portrait by artist Colin Kimball. The portrait, on display Tuesday with a dozen others of Dallas-area Vietnam veterans, pictures a newly-wounded Capt. Clark in a wheelchair looking forward at his current self: the motivated and religiously-devoted survivor he would become. Clark is an author and a frequent public speaker.
"I thank God every day that I'm out of there," said Col. Ken Cordier (USAF Ret.) who is also featured in one of the portraits. It is a tribute to the more than six years the Air Force pilot spent as a prisoner of war.
"Six years, three months, and two days," he said, to be exact. He tells his own story in the book Guardian Eagle.
And then there is Army Sgt. Paul Reed. His portrait includes the North Vietnamese enemy soldier he met 25 years later. The man he thought he'd killed.
After a battle in Kon Tum province in 1968, Paul Reed recovered a ruck sack of a Vietnamese soldier he killed. Years later, still dealing with the grief of that incident, he chose to seek out the widow of that soldier and return a diary he'd found inside that ruck sack. But when he arrived in Vietnam, he found that North Vietnamese Lt. Nguyen Van Niah was still alive. Another soldier had been carrying the diary that day. The men reconciled, forgave each other, and are now friends.
Kimball's portrait of Reed includes a profile of Nguyen Van Niah in the background.
"Oh that's so powerful. That's so potent," said Reed of the portrait. "It's a lot of closure. And hopefully that message of forgiveness, reconciliation and peace can come through." His return journey to Vietnam was recorded by PBS and Reed is also a published author.
At this commemoration of the end of the war, Kimball offered the portraits of North Texas Vietnam Veterans as a tribute to their service.
"All of us that served in Vietnam were vulnerable. And I was just one of the unlucky few that got caught, got caught in a bad situation," Cordier, 86, said of his ordeal as a POW.
More than 58,000 Americans died in Vietnam. More than 1,600 are still listed as missing.
"It is especially important for us to know that today we are appreciated because we are the legacy for these people who went to war," Clark said when asked how he thought his generation of soldiers should be remembered.
So all it is is just 'you're a good person. I appreciate you,'" he said when asked how these five decades later that Vietnam veterans should be thanked for their service. "That's all there is to it. Simple," he said.
A simple thank you for the memories, the sacrifices and the lessons they hope will not simply fade away.