Exhibit brings Army memories

Forty-six years ago this week was when the letter came. I was on my honeymoon, staying in a small motel across the street from Disneyland when my mother called from Kansas City.

An official-looking letter had arrived addressed to me. Did I want her to open it?
Inside was the notice to report for induction into the Army. I had been drafted, less than four months after graduating from the University of Missouri.
Within a few weeks, I was on my way to basic training at Fort Bliss (it was anything but) in El Paso, Texas, where the Army learned I was not the best physical specimen. I don’t think I ever was able to do more than 20 push-ups and sit-ups, couldn’t climb ropes, or swing on monkey bars.
But I got along well with the drill sergeants, didn’t cause trouble, occasionally hit the target with my M-16 rifle, and could type, so I graduated. Because I had a journalism degree, the Army skipped any advanced training and moved me to Huntsville, Ala., where I worked as a tour guide at the Army Missile Museum at Redstone Arsenal.
I thought I was pretty lucky. But a few months later, my luck turned. I was sent to a mechanized infantry Army camp at Quang Tri, Vietnam, a town a few miles south of the DMZ. My job consisted of making trips into the field, compiling information and photos about the operations, and helping out with civilian journalists who sometimes ventured north from their offices in Saigon to get a first-hand look at the war.
I finished my stint and returned home in 1969 to a country less-than-enthusiastic about what we were doing there. Over the years, I rarely mentioned my military service.
Shortly after Jenny and I were married 13 years ago, she found several medals I had received stuck in a drawer of a file cabinet, had them mounted and framed, and surprised me with them on Christmas. I would never have done it, but I like seeing them on the wall above my home computer.
I thought more about the war and my service recently when I visited the Vietnam War exhibit at the Union County Heritage Museum. (It runs through Oct. 15.)
The exhibit features stories, photos and objects from local veterans and a local collector who tracked the changes in uniforms and accoutrements each year of the war.
For me, the remembrances are not so much about war (although there was plenty of that), but about the people. … Giving small Hershey bars we got in our rations to smiling Vietnamese children; helping plan a party for kids in a nearby orphanage; eating French bread, warm from the oven, made by women at a village bakery.
And for a kid from a poor family in the Midwest, it was the beginning of a lifelong interest in travel and people from other countries and other cultures. Serving in Vietnam and traveling to Japan and Hong Kong broadened my views and changed my life.
Of course, that all came later. While there, the focus was on doing a job and getting home alive.

T. Wayne Mitchell, Gazette publisher, can be reached at 662-534-6321.

About Chris Elkins

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