By SARA ARTHURS
Half a century ago, returning Vietnam War veterans were told to keep quiet about their time in the service. Now, they’re sharing their stories — and the experience has been powerful for the interviewer as well as the interviewees.
Dave Morrow has been interviewing Findlay’s “humans” for the past four years, collecting about 700 stories for Humans of Findlay, a project in which he shares stories and photographs of community members.
He recently started a project specifically related to Vietnam veterans, as many were never properly welcomed home, he said.
Among the stories he tells is that of Tom Wells. The Navy veteran was present at the Tet Offensive, and is now disabled with heart and lung issues from exposure to the Agent Orange defoliant chemical during his many trips through the jungles.
Wells also has post-traumatic stress syndrome from firefights, Morrow wrote.
Marine veteran Robert Sabo shared with Morrow his experiences with his canine partner, Hans, with whom he had a strong bond.
A scout dog team was one of the most dangerous jobs in the military. The teams were sent out in front of all other soldiers to sniff out weapons and booby traps, Morrow wrote.
Sabo shared with him the events of his worst day in Vietnam, when Sabo witnessed the death of another dog handler who had volunteered to take point, although it was Sabo’s turn that day.
Morrow also shares stories of veterans’ lives after their service. For Sabo, this includes eight grandchildren and serving as a deacon in his church.
For Wells, this includes nearly 40 years of marriage to his wife, Kathy. The couple moved to Findlay in 1996, and in 2017 he received the Findlay Veteran of the Year award.
‘Not just anyone, but Dave’
Morrow recalled sitting in Cheddar’s restaurant with the first veteran he interviewed. They were just talking, and then the man’s eyes welled up: “All of the sudden, he’s 19, back on the ground, reliving (the war),” Morrow said.
He said many of the veterans have lived with untold stories for 50 years. “Some of them talk about closets, boxes” that they store their feelings in, he said.
Morrow is a veteran himself, but served during peacetime. He graduated high school in 1975, so was five years too young to serve in Vietnam. But he saw family and friends go off to war.
Many veterans of Morrow’s age, who served shortly after Vietnam, “almost have this sense of duty” to Vietnam veterans, as they themselves were not “quite old enough to help” during the war, said Hancock County Veterans Service Officer Nichole Coleman.
She said veterans feel a connection to Morrow. He is a veteran and is close to them in age, but it’s not just that, she said.
“He is so passionate about telling people’s stories,” Coleman said. “But more importantly, he has a gift for making people feel comfortable and safe.”
Coleman said when Morrow called and told her he had “this heart and this passion to do this” project, she became excited that someone wanted to record Vietnam veterans’ experiences. “And not just anyone, but Dave.”
Veterans who have met with Morrow have contacted Coleman afterward to say they didn’t realize how much they “needed to get off of my chest” until they had someone asking and listening.
“He brought things out that I haven’t talked about before,” Wells said. “I was able to get rid of some of those memories, you know? … And in the process, it made me feel better.”
Sharing and healing
These days, Wells is told “Thank you for your service” when he’s wearing his Vietnam veteran hat in public, and it means a lot to him. But it was a different experience when he first returned home.
“When we came home … nobody liked us,” Wells said, recalling how the veterans were called baby killers and spit upon.
“They were ostracized,” Morrow said. “They were traumatized.”
One veteran told Morrow he had come home to Findlay on leave and was sitting at Jac and Do’s, where “some guy at a table calls him a baby killer.”
Another veteran told Morrow that he hadn’t even told his wife about what he had gone through until just a few years ago.
Many struggle with PTSD. One 70-year-old veteran told Morrow he cannot be around fireworks, because “I hear a loud bang and I hit the floor.”
Some went on to struggle with alcohol or other drug use as a way of coping with the trauma.
Morrow, a former emergency medical technician, has experience with PTSD himself.
Coleman said veterans “have told me that this has been therapeutic for them” and that, once they start talking, they realize they have “more bottled up than they realized.”
They may fear opening a can of worms, but by “having someone so kind and loving and passionate” listening, they realize “I just said all of that and I didn’t spontaneously combust.”
She said many Vietnam veterans have recently retired and have more time on their hands, a change which may make it harder to keep those feelings bottled up than when work was a distraction. Vietnam veterans have a particularly high suicide rate, she said.
In addition to mental health issues, many are experiencing more severe physical health problems than most people in their 60s or 70s due to Agent Orange exposure. Conditions that people might get as seniors, such as heart issues, Type 2 diabetes or cancer, have been striking these veterans earlier in life, and more severely.
One veteran Morrow met has been disabled since he was 40 years old.
Wells said another veteran tells people: “I got killed over there, I’m just not dead yet.”
Coleman noted that while veterans may have physical and mental health issues, there is support available.
“The road to recovery is different for everyone, but we would love to help,” she said.
Coleman said one thing she’s found interesting is that, through Morrow’s project, people who protested the war “have had an opportunity to apologize. … Honestly that’s something I never thought about until the first time I read one of those comments.”
So the project is “giving everyone an opportunity to heal, not just the veteran. … Everyone who was involved in the chaos of that time. And I think that’s really cool.”
Morrow has read comments from people saying that, for example, they went to school with one of the veterans, or lived down the street from him, but “I had no idea this is what he experienced.”
Wells doesn’t use Facebook, but his wife does and has shared with him the reactions of people who have read his story.
“She reads them to me, and it means a lot,” he said.
Wells said his wife, who created a room of things related to his time in the service, has helped bring some of the stories out.
‘Humbling and powerful’
Morrow also spoke to the mother and sister of Timothy Rinehart, who served in the Army and was killed in action near Tay Ninh, Vietnam, on Dec. 22, 1967.
“A day in the jungle is like crawling on the ground for a week,” Rinehart wrote in a letter home. “Red ants all over, scorpions, which I got bit by one, cobras, bamboo which cuts, the sun which will melt you.”
Rinehart’s sister, Mindy Lotz, was born in October 1967, two months before her brother was killed, and never met him.
“You know, it was hard. It was very hard. You live with a ghost most of your life,” she said. “And he was such a great person — bigger than life, you know. Walk into a room, steal the room.”
Her mother, Juanita Rinehart, was active in Gold Star Mothers, who “didn’t just talk about their sons” but visited VA hospitals and met with AMVETS. These were Lotz’s role models growing up.
Lotz met Morrow through Coleman, who is “like family to us.” Lotz’s brother was a friend of Coleman’s father, and the two women have sons close in age.
Lotz said some veterans don’t want to tell their stories, and that needs to be respected. But many, once they start talking, realize how helpful it is.
She said members of her brother’s company would call her mother, from all over the country, sometimes in the middle of the night. Some were drunk, or crying. Her mother took every phone call.
“These guys have kept this stuff in for so long,” Lotz said.
Lotz visited the Vietnam Wall in Washington, D.C., for the first time in October. She took a picture of her brother’s name on the wall, and didn’t realize until later that she herself was reflected in the picture.
Lotz said her mother told Morrow “she missed her son. And she does. She misses him.” (Juanita Rinehart died Christmas Day at age 94.)
With each post, Morrow includes a photo of the veteran at the time they served, along with one in present day.
“You look at their faces. … These were baby faces we sent out,” he said.
Morrow said he has done 700 interviews for Humans of Findlay, but the experience of interviewing the veterans has been much different.
A few said, “Let me think about it” rather than agreeing to be interviewed right away. Morrow stresses that he’s not necessarily asking them to dredge up painful memories — it’s OK simply to provide a picture and a little information on when they served, and he will post it on the page to honor the veteran.
Telling their stories can be cathartic for some, he said.
“I don’t think these guys want to die with this … embedded” in them, he said.
Telling their stories is “spiritual, humbling, educating. … You walk away in awe of these people,” Morrow said.
In addition to Facebook, he’s created a website where all the veterans’ stories are archived.
Anyone interested in being part of the project can contact Morrow through Facebook or at 567-250-1006.
Veterans seeking support can contact Coleman’s office at 419-424-7036. The veterans’ crisis line can be reached at 1-800-273-8255 (Press 1).