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Panelists reflect on Vietnam at history center forum
Speaker says war still haunts many veterans
0810vietnam
The Northeast Georgia History Center’s forum featured a panel of Vietnam War veterans and others affected by the conflict sharing stories of their experiences Tuesday evening at the history center.

Words don't do it justice.

"Combat is something where you have to be there" to fully comprehend, Willard J. Langdon told the group gathered Tuesday night for a forum on the Vietnam War.

"As a young boy, I used to go to war movies, and I was so excited. But when I got in combat, I realized it was 24/7. The nighttime is just as bad or worse than the daytime," Langdon said.

He and a panel of three other men, as well as the forum's moderator, described their military experiences to an audience of about 50 people at the Northeast Georgia History Center in Gainesville.

The Rev. Joe Tu, Vietnamese pastor at First Baptist Church on Green Street, also was a panelist, recalling when he and six other members of his family fled by boat as the country fell in April 1975 to the North Vietnamese communists.

They and other passengers heard the news through a radio news report. "On the whole boat, everything was so quiet. Everybody was just wondering what was going on," Tu said.

J.D. Kirby, who spent two tours in Vietnam, led the program, "Voices from Vietnam," as part of the history center's monthly forum series.

He talked for a few minutes about the country's history, from its days under French rule to unification under communist rule. The U.S. began its involvement in the 1950s, escalated the conflict in the 1960s, then entered into a peace accord with North Vietnam in 1973.

The U.S. fled South Vietnam as that country's capitol, Saigon, was overtaken by North Vietnam.

Fighting was brutal on all sides throughout the war, with America losing some 58,000 troops.

Panelists Tommy Bowers and J.T. Borders talked about injuries they suffered during the war.

They also described horrific conditions in the mountainous jungle battlefield. Not only were they facing an unseen enemy, but they battled the elements, such as unrelenting rains.

"You've got all kinds of weird sounds coming through the air," Borders said. "That sound you hear coming scares you worse than when you run into them face to face."

Langdon said the war still haunts many veterans.

"In my own opinion, everyone brings back some baggage," he said. "Some people can control their thoughts ... better than others. In my platoon, I have contact with all the (veterans) and out of (that group), there's only two of us that's really got their wits."

Post-traumatic stress disorder and physical effects from exposure to Agent Orange — a defoliant used by the U.S. military as part of herbicidal warfare — run rampant.

"War is a very difficult thing," Langdon said. "... We got fired upon so much, we kind of got immune to it. It's just part of life."

Panelist Brian Cunningham touched on the political nature of the war.

Many South Vietnamese citizens "didn't have a clue what was going on and nobody was telling them anything," he said.

"And you had a government that sits over top of all of this, trying to prosecute a war and yet is only looking at what the response is going to be at some level of political acceptance, because of what was happening ... on the home front.

"That's not how anyone goes into a war and expects to win."

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