A seven-member panel discussed the veteran experience - from the initial decision to enter military service and the nature of that service to the impact of a veteran's service on loved ones and the lessons that stay with a veteran for the remainder of life. This special event was part of the University's weeklong 1968 Retrospective, held November 10-15, which commemorated the 40th anniversary of a transformational year in politics, education, science and culture. Event organizers believe the University's 1968 Retrospective is the only event of its kind to take place in Maine, if not New England.
Participating in the panel were four local veterans - Rudy Buitron, US Army retired (Sgt. 1st class), who now lives in Portage; John Barlow, US Air Force (Staff Sgt.), who now lives in Fort Fairfield; Disabled American Veterans Chapter 10 Commander Don Pelkey, US Air Force (Sgt.), who now lives in Fort Fairfield; and Lionel Lavoie, U.S. Marines (Sgt.), who now lives in Frenchville. Also participating in the event were Chancellor Richard Pattenaude and UMPI President Don Zillman, both veterans, and Dr. Carol Hawkins, Director of the Farnham Writers' Center and Visiting Assistant Professor of English at Colby College.
Following a tribute to all veterans, guest speaker Professor Hawkins gave an introduction to the panel discussion with a short presentation on how the Vietnam conflict has been presented in popular culture and the lack of understanding that many young people have for that war. On the eve of the war in Iraq, in the spring of 2003, she taught a class at the University of Maine at Fort Kent that dealt with the Vietnam War, and she discovered that many of her students only had a knowledge of the war through TV and movies. For example, Hawkins said, they were trying to understand real veterans' experiences through what they'd seen in such movies as Forrest Gump. So Hawkins asked a real veteran to come to her class and share his experiences. That invitation turned into a major community event, and that veteran, Lionel Lavoie, was able to talk about his experiences during the war, and how those experiences changed his life. Hawkins then asked Lavoie, who was able to participate in the University's panel discussion, to start things off by sharing some of his thoughts.
Lavoie said that when he first went to Vietnam, he had only been there three weeks before he found himself in his first battle. Of the whole platoon, he was one of only two soldiers left alive. He pointed out that Vietnam veterans experienced the hardships of the war when they were the same age of the college students in the audience.
"You hear about the ‘pain, suffering and ultimate sacrifices of our fallen comrades,' but what we suffered can't be explained," Lavoie said. "It's just like the pain a woman suffers in childbirth can't be explained."
However, Lavoie said that, for him, having the chance after so many years to talk about what happened to him in Vietnam has helped him to heal. He said he has fewer nightmares now and plans to keep talking about the war, not only to continue the healing process, but also to ensure that everyone gains an understanding of what veterans endured during the Vietnam War.
Other veterans on the panel related stories of their own. Don Pelkey recalled how he was dropped off alongside the Ho Chi Minh trail with 100 rounds of ammunition and enough rations for a week and had to lay in camouflage and report the number of people and supplies that went by. John Barlow remembered how he and his fellow soldiers would complete heavy construction projects during monsoons, and the time a bullet ricocheted off his cigarette lighter during battle. They talked about Agent Orange and how the dioxin it contained affected the people it was dropped on during the war. They talked about how they ended up in the war in the first place; some were drafted, others had to have their parents sign for them to enter the military. And then they talked about what happened after they finished their military service.
Each veteran recounted the same story - no one thanked them when they returned home and no one wanted to talk to them about their experiences. Chancellor Pattenaude recalled that when he came home, it was winter and he wore his field jacket: "People wouldn't talk to me," he said.
The veterans said they think society has learned a lot since that time. They're pleased by how much better people treat the troops returning home today. But they also believe that there's one important thing that people need to do better: they need to ensure that younger generations really understand what our nation's veterans have gone through - whether they're veterans of WWII, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan or Iraq - and what support needs to be offered to veterans when they return home.
"I felt it was important to be a part of this discussion because it gives me the chance for others to understand what we're going through and what needs to be done to help veterans and troops that will be coming home," Buitron said after the event. "They're in for a shock. It's pertinent that we talk about this now."
As President Zillman noted, people today can look back on the situation 40 years ago and judge how the American people responded. Forty years from now, he said, people will be able to reflect back on the beginning of the 21st century and judge how we responded to the events of our time.