The 895 dog tags gently jangle as a light breeze blows on the banks of the Cooper River. The silver tags hang at the entrance of the Vietnam exhibit at Patriots Point. As the metal ID chains clang into each other, it creates a very different wind chime that welcomes visitors to a replica of a naval support base.
The names of airmen, sailors, soldiers and Marines are individually imprinted on these ceremonial tags: South Carolinians from Cowpens to Cordesville who never came back.
One tag says LCPL Curtis Painter, USMC, Charleston, 10-27-1967.
Another commemorates PFC Larry Villanueva, Army, Summerville, 1-05-1970.
This support base is billed as “A Hero’s Welcome Home.” But this 21/2-acre exhibit is serving as something far more important than re-creating life in a war zone.
The sounds, the crude structures, the artifacts from a war that cost 58,000 American lives also are being used not just to remember those who died, but to also re-program those who are trying to live.
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD, has affected Vietnam vets for more than 40 years. Therapists at the Ralph A. Johnson VA Hospital are now using the very real images and memories invoked by visits to such an exhibit to allow their patients to face their fears.
Dr. Ashley Hatton says one of her clients crashed in a helicopter. To cope with that trauma, he sat near that chopper and just “looked at it.”
Another veteran confronted a patrol boat that once operated in shallow, weed-choked rivers.
After years of avoidance, this exhibit allows face-to-face exposure that often serves to purge those bad memories.
Dr. Peter Tuerk admits he doesn’t use the word “cure” but instead focuses on terms such as “recovery” and “empowerment.”
Each vet is different and their experiences real. Why, though, is there now an increase in the number of Vietnam vets who are seeking help?
The simple answer is that many have been in jobs and now that they’re entering retirement, inactivity allows other thoughts and experiences to reappear.
The Patriots Point exhibit makes every attempt to re-create a war zone experience. From the communications hut there’s constant radio chatter. A lieutenant is heard yelling, “We need air support!” A platoon sergeant warns others of an ambush.
In a nearby hooch, a temporary shelter, wooden cots are covered with mosquito nets. Music blares from a small radio. It’s a song from The Animals called “We Gotta’ Get Out of This Place.”
Just a few steps away is the Mess Hall. Crude wooden tables and benches await weary soldiers with appetites. A menu dated 8/18/68 states that breakfast will include oatmeal and peaches. For lunch: ham slices, carrots and mashed potatoes.
The year 1968 was the bloodiest one in Vietnam. I wonder how many who read the menu that day didn’t make it back for supper?
As a constant backdrop to all of this is the nonstop sound of helicopters.
Also, close by: a guard tower, a supply shack and sick bay.
Every one of these structures, sounds and images can impact a veteran in profound ways.
It’s heartwarming to know that this exhibit offers a realistic glimpse into the stories and sacrifices of those who served and died in Vietnam.
It’s even more significant to know this same exhibit continues to offer healing and understanding to those who came home.
Having a tangible place to reflect and reconnect is a therapeutic safe-haven.
Who knew that calling it a support base would have multiple meanings and purposes?
As those dog tags jangle in the marsh breeze, they subtly signal this message to every vet that enters: “Well done, and welcome home.”
Reach Warren Peper at firstname.lastname@example.org.