The Vietnam War is an aspect of American history that continues to carry a unique kind of passion among those who lived through it. The topic is considered to be difficult to “find the right time for” to speak openly about. On Nov. 8, “A Vietnam War Panel: Our Story” brought together veterans and Bozeman community members at Museum of the Rockies to share their experiences and reflect on this monumental period of U.S. history.
The event was inspired by the PBS documentary “The Vietnam War: a film by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick,” a series that explores the human dimensions of the conflict and pulls in testimonies from all sides. Montana PBS, Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 788 and MSU Veteran Services hosted the event.
Joseph Schumacher, the Director of MSU Veteran Services, made opening remarks. “I want to recognize that this is a conversation that might not have taken place at some point in time, or ever in our community,” he said. “Over time [individuals] my age and younger haven’t been educated about this time period. I really feel that it’s a disservice not only to myself and my colleagues, but to our country.”
MSU Vice President for Student Success Chris Kearns, Ph.D., led the discussion. Each panelist shared their story from their time in Vietnam as well as their experiences returning home. Audience members were encouraged to write down questions that would be posed to the panelists. The following offers a small bit of insight into their stories.
Chuck Renevier served with the Marine Corps. “I’ll be honest with you, it wasn’t my idea to do that. Uncle Sam had a better idea. My lottery number was two,” he said. He was assigned to an elite unit, and would be dropped directly into areas of enemy concentration. When asked what he believed civilians should understand about serving, Renevier responded, “As a veteran, your friends are always sitting next to you. I have plenty of civilian friends, but no one measures up with the guys that I served with.”
Joseph Valleta chose to volunteer his draft in 1966, allowing him to choose his post. “Of course I put down ‘tunnel rat,’” he said. Therefore, he spent much of his time performing underground search and destroy missions. After leaving the Army in 1967, Valleta went back to his previous trade as a barber and went on to open three salons. He offered advice to veterans today: “Keep your chin up, move forward and be proud.”
Curtis Dassonville began serving in 1964 and worked as an aircraft commander. He went on to be a career officer, ROTC Distinguished Veteran and an MSU professor of military science. Reflecting on his career, Dassonville remarked, “The most satisfying flying assignment I ever had was in Vietnam, because someone really needed me.”
Richard Dix came from a logging family in Montana and joined the military in 1968 when a friend had gone MIA in a helicopter crash. He eventually traveled to Vietnam in 1999 through a program that built houses for veterans there, which helped him through the difficulties of adjusting back to civilian life. Dix continues to live his life by the motto, “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”
Mason Grahl joined the Marines in 1968, stationed near the Ho Chi Minh Trail and serving as “a good old fashioned grunt.” Gray spoke to the challenges of returning from war. “What happens when you come home, you need to get busy, because it seems like you’re always fighting those demons from Vietnam,” he said. Grahl became a biology teacher and coach, and eventually the principal of the high school from which he graduated.
David Chung served in the latter era of the war known as “Vietnamization,” a policy of the Nixon administration that aimed to end U.S. involvement. As a part of 7th Air Force he endured the Easter Offensive of 1972, an experience he branded as a “three month nightmare.” He stayed busy after returning by working at a small start up comprised of all Vietnam Vets— a company that eventually turned into FedEx. Chung is currently a Commander of the Military Order of the Purple Heart.
The panel was marked by insight and honesty by each of the panelists. The event was live-streamed and can be viewed through Montana PBS’s Facebook page. Further information and resources can be found through the MSU Veterans Services.