Vietnam veterans helping others “come out of the woods”

Jul 4, 2014

Members of the 1087, Northwest Montana Chapter of the Vietnam Veterans of America. President John Burgess on the far left.
Credit Katrin Frye

On the hill outside a Somers home a group of men and one woman are working on a 1968 Kaiser military truck.

“The frame underneath; you can see the line of green is going to cross underneath there- that’ll be OD Green. And then the frame is going to be black,” Dale Cordell served in the Army in Vietnam between 1970 and 1971. Cordell is a member of the recently formed Chapter 1087 of the Vietnam Veterans.

“All the main body parts we’re going to do OD Green. It ain’t exactly 100% military, but, in the military they just kind of stood back and threw the paint on it, and covered everything as green as they possibly could. So, that’s kind of what we’re doing. We want to make it look as close to the trucks that we drove and rode in over there,” Cordell said.

They’re working in front of the Somers home of Chapter President John Burgess.

“It was in military use up until about ’85, hence the brown that’s on their right now. That’s a radar reflecting paint; which is just like iron to try to sand,” Burgess said.

They’re working from the bottom up, using dark greens to cover the brown-beige the truck has been painted. The front grill is being sprayed black.

“If we get time; we plan on putting POW/MIA on the doors, and then on the front, where this gentleman with the red bandana, Dennis Gomez there, he’s going to on the front put POW/MIA Never Forget, and then on the back bumper; Jane Fonda is still an American traitor,” Burgess said.

Burgess sides with other Jane Fonda critics who are angry about Fonda’s actions when she travelled to Vietnam during the war.

Burgess said they plan to drive the truck in Kalispell’s Independence Day parade with 17 people riding along.

“We’re having shirts made up that says ‘Welcome Home,’ and that’s another personal statement to Vietnam Veterans. We didn’t get the welcome home that a lot of them… a lot of other branches of the service in different wars received,” Burgess said.

They also plan to use the truck as a sort of billboard by parking it in specific locations and having it out during different events to get the word out about this Chapter which formed last September.

Burgess said the Flathead alone counts more than 3,000 Vietnam Veterans among its population. Montana as a whole is home to many veterans and has the second-highest per capita veteran population in the country. Some are native sons and daughters returning home, others are seeking solitude or the wide open spaces of Big Sky Country.

Burgess said he served in the Navy from 1972 to 1976. He said they want to reach out to other Vietnam Veterans, as well as others returning from military service. On his business card is the quote “never again will one generation of veterans abandon another.”

“We don’t we don’t want to see what happened to us, happen to these veterans, because they stepped up and said ‘up to and including my life is what I signed my contract for,” Burgess said this means public support for changes to the Veterans Administration, and personal support for those having a hard time dealing with the VA.

“I’m in agreement that it’s time that people started holding their heads up, instead of turning away and not talking about Vietnam,” Cordell said he got involved with the VVA when he was approached by Burgess who saw Cordell’s truck with Vietnam Veterans stickers on it. He said it helps to meet with others who have been in combat, even all these years later.

“I remember one day, I went over, right after a rocket attack; a 122 rocket had come in and hit right above the door on a dispensary, and there must have been about 20 guys in the dispensary, standing in line. And, every one of them was killed. I ran over there to see if I could help anybody, and I ended up just in the middle of a mess of dead bodies, and the looks on their faces, body parts here and there, I just, went into, basically went into shock. And… there’s nothing I can do here… that’s forever up here. It’ll never… wow, it’ll never go,” Cordell said.

Cordell was among the men who took part in the 10-day “Run to the Wall” from Los Angeles, California to Washington D.C. in May. He said the whole trip to the wall was healing.

“Now, people have had a chance to look at things and evaluate us, and realize that we’re not all the bad people that we were made out to be back during the  war and afterwards, and there’s a lot of people who still hide out in the woods, and you mention Vietnam, and they’ll just turn and walk away from you; ‘I don’t even want to talk about it.’ Well, it’s time that people talked about it,” Cordell said.

Steve Haag grew up with Burgess in Somers and said he served in the Navy from 1969 to 1973.

“I grew up the youngest of 9 brothers, and I was the 5th of my brothers to join the Navy, so it was kind of a traditional thing for me to do, out of high school. So, but it just happened to be that in ’69, that’s when I graduated, and that’s when I went into the Navy, see, and my first tour of duty was in-country Vietnam,” Haag said.

Haag’s second tour was aboard a ship in San Diego, and then he went on a guided missile frigate in Pearl Harbor, and took two more trips to Vietnam on that ship. He also participated in the “Run for the Wall” this past May.

“They told us; well, this is the, this will be the parade you didn’t get when you came home. And... for 10 consecutive days, they just made me feel like… a hero,” Haag said.

Burgess said they didn’t have to pay for gas or food for the entire journey, stopping to talk at schools and veterans hospitals along the way.

Steve Buck said he served in the Navy from 1965 to 1968 on an aircraft carrier in Asia. He said he got involved with the V-V-A because he was tired of the stigma attached to being a Vietnam Veteran.

“I was real tired of Vietnam Veterans being painted as a bunch of psychopathic drug addicts,” Buck said.

He said in his travels, he’s spent his time in the woods.

“I’ve known a lot of other guys that did as well. And I finally came to the conclusion that it was time to come out of the woods. And, hopefully, some of the other veterans will as well,” Buck said.

Burgess said that’s part of the goal of the V-V-A; helping veterans come out of the woods, and continuing that support once they do.