"Damned while we were over there, damned when we came back," local vets have finally recorded their history for a new exhibit.
Rick Butler of Apple Valley entered combat in Vietnam when he was 18. Though trained as a paratrooper, he ended up "walking point," trekking about 100 yards ahead of his platoon to scour the jungle paths for booby traps and flush out snipers.
It was as dangerous and terrifying as it sounds. When Ray Garza, Butler's best friend and the point man who trained him, earned his third purple heart and was "short" (due to go home in) 16 days, he joked, "I'm so short I can't see over my C-ration can." That day, on his last scheduled point assignment, Garza stepped on a booby trap.
"Sooner or later, point men always lose," Butler says.
Butler came back haunted by the deaths of friends like Garza, terrible nightmares and "point whispers" -- all the things point men said to themselves to temper the fear. They remain a constant refrain in his mind.
"If anyone says they weren't afraid, they're either lying to you or crazy," Butler says. "You can't be afraid for 365 days, so you just get hardened. You get numb. You lose your sensitivity to it. I was convinced I was never going to come home alive. I didn't care. I would do anything."
"We were tuned in and turned on. When we came back, they forgot to turn us off," says Glenn Boche of South St. Paul, who was drafted in 1969 and served in the infantry that inspired Oliver Stone's 1986 film "Platoon."
Boche, Butler and several other Dakota County veterans have contributed oral histories, photographs and artifacts to an upcoming Dakota County Historical Society exhibit on Vietnam.
For them, the war is far from over. "I feel horrible guilt," Butler says. "Somehow, this survivor's guilt doesn't go away after 40 years."
"There isn't a day that goes by that I don't think about it," says Wayne Bauer of Hastings, who was involved in intense city fighting in Hue in 1968. "You just didn't know where anyone was coming from. They'd pop out from a window or door or spider hole.
"Wars ain't worth fighting," he says. "They ain't. It ain't as glamorous as it looks. It's a lot different when the bullets are flying at you."
Faced with protesters at airports upon arriving home, most vets quickly learned to avoid talking about Vietnam. "The first time I flew into Minneapolis airport, I didn't even want my parents there," Boche says.
"We were damned before we went over there, damned while we were over there, damned when we came back," Boche says. "I didn't burn any villages down. I didn't rape any kids. When someone needed to be shot, I shot at them. That's the nature of war."
Butler says when he returned home, he tried to write about Vietnam. "I couldn't deal with it," he says. It took decades before Butler could record his experience -- the jungle conditions ("They had millipedes that were as big as my forearm. We slept on the ground, and those things would run over us at night."), the fierce combat and the constant fear -- but he eventually did write a 2007 book, "Point: A Paratrooper's Memoirs of Vietnam."
"Every day, it becomes a little bit easier for me to talk about," Boche says. "The only thing good I can say about the Army right now was they taught me how to sleep on a pile of rocks."
"When I was over there," he says, "I got pretty religious. Me and God are best buds. When I die, I think I'm going to go to heaven because I've been to hell."
Liz Rolfsmeier is a Minneapolis freelance writer.