Vietnam remembered on 25th anniversary

by Craig Gustafson

Embedded beneath the skin in Mike Warner’s body rest tiny metal slivers from a distant war. The shrapnel shards burrowed into his legs, abdomen and chest, nearly striking his heart.
These remnants of a controversial war that split a nation have accompanied the former University student throughout the last 33 years.
A history of heart problems, not necessarily associated with his battle wounds, has led to several hospital visits over the years. On countless occasions, Warner says young interns look in disbelief at his X-rays, revealing the numerous metal shavings in his upper body.
The interns are born of a generation that cannot comprehend a decade-long war and how it can infect a nation like a cancer, capturing its undivided attention and dividing the population.
And so, on the 25th anniversary of the end of the United States’ most emotionally devastating war, today’s youth are reminded that once upon a time a generation of unrest, turmoil and a strange sense of unity existed.

Da Nang, South Vietnam, April 1967.
The exact date is a little hazy in Warner’s mind, but the events of his last day of active duty in the Vietnam war are as striking to him as the explosion that ripped through his unit.
The 21-year-old Warner and five other members of Delta Company ventured through a field on the outskirts of Da Nang, the site of an American air base, gathering information for a report on enemy movement.
“There was a lot of enemy in the area,” Warner recalled. “We were in what they’d call a free-fire zone, which was open … if anything moved, you could take it out.”
The patrol was a normal function; during the day groups of 20 soldiers routinely scouted the area for enemies, and at night smaller groups like Warner’s headed out to do the same.
Over time, several of the company’s men were killed or wounded.
“You just put that in the back of your mind,” Warner said. “If you continually thought of (others dying), you couldn’t function. The hurt came later.
“We’d lost some guys a couple nights before, so the enemy knew we were there and we knew they were there,” Warner said.
He said the small unit’s efforts to find enemies on that hot, muggy evening were halfhearted; there was no need to seek out death when death already sought you.
So, when a blast of light slashed through the darkness and thousands of shrapnel fragments instantaneously tore into the soldiers, it was almost expected.
Warner is still unsure whether the attack came from a grenade explosion or a “bouncing Betty,” a mine that shoots up out of the ground to waist level and explodes. A bouncing Betty is intended to maim, not kill.
The unit’s point man was struck in the back of the head. The soldier to Mike’s left lost his leg. Warner and another soldier took the rest of the blow, with Warner taking the brunt of it; shrapnel laced both of his legs, abdomen and chest.
The acrid smell of gun powder filled the air as four members of the unit fell to the ground and the remaining two ducked for cover.
Backup arrived soon after the attack and cleared a path for medics. A helicopter then flew the wounded back to the U.S. base in Da Nang.
Warner spent five weeks in an intensive care unit healing a broken and shrapnel-infested body before returning home.

University of Minnesota, September 1970.
After reconstruction of both his legs and an 18-month recuperating stint in the Great Lakes Naval Hospital in Illinois, the doctors declared Warner ready to go home. Smaller pieces of shrapnel, the ones doctors said would be too difficult to extract, went with him.
Although Warner was content to tuck the war in the recesses of his mind, anti-war sentiment had grasped the country and reminders were everywhere.
In 1970, Warner returned to his family in Minneapolis and to the University he left five years earlier. While he was proud to have served his country, he was ready to re-enter civilian life. But despite wanting to forget Vietnam, he could not relinquish thoughts of his friends — soldiers who remained in the volatile Southeast Asian country.
He registered for classes, bought his books and returned to school.
But Warner only lasted only a few weeks.
In an odd way, the Vietnam vet witnessed how the University resembled a war zone like the one in Vietnam — a place where two sides consisting of the same countrymen battled over an issue with no right or wrong; a place where no one fit the mold of the “good” or “bad” guy.
Like so many times at the University during the war, Warner saw students demonstrating and law enforcement agencies tensely watching over them.
“I knew police officers, and I knew students, but I’ll tell you what. I laid my books down and got in my car and went home. I was tired of that crap,” Warner said. “I had seen enough people get hurt. I just left and never went back.”
Warner’s frustrations were justified two years later.

University of Minnesota, May 10, 1972
By noon more than 3,000 protesters overtook the University campus to protest bombing in Cambodia, Vietnam’s neighbor.
It began as a planned march to occupy the Air Force recruiting office in Dinkytown, but rapidly increased into a full-blown riot.
A massive wall of pulsating demonstrators packed the streets and sidewalks of Washington Avenue in front of Coffman Memorial Union and the crossover bridges leading to the building. The throng shouted anti-war chants and halted traffic along the street.
Garbed in a riot helmet and gas mask, 25-year-old Mark Jessen clenched a 48-inch baton. Walking 25 abreast, the St. Paul Police Department patrolman was among four rows of about 100 police officers that surged into the crowd of protesters.
Anger and fear coursed through the young officer.
“It was threatening. They really turned on us.” Jessen said. “It was just like a sea of humanity.”
A helicopter swooped above the crowd, releasing clouds of tear gas that burned and reddened the eyes of both demonstrators and unmasked police officers. Somewhere off to his side, Jessen remembers the Minneapolis Tactical Squad racing around, advancing on protestors.
“Then, of course, everybody turns against the coppers because of that,” he said.
Like Warner, Jessen, a three-year Vietnam veteran, said the demonstrations reminded him of the war he had left behind. He did, however, have doubts about the protesters’ motives.
“It really didn’t seem like the people that were there yelling at us were there because of their personal views of Vietnam,” he said. “They were yelling at us because they were in the middle of the street and we were going to try to make them get out of the street.”
As the tear gas descended, things only got worse.
“I remember turning around and some kid that had a St. Paul Police Reserve uniform on, or an Explorer Post uniform, was hanging on the hood of a car,” Jessen said.
The reserve was attempting to stop a vehicle from driving down Washington Avenue, but instead of stopping, the car plowed into him, nearly knocking him under the automobile.
“The guy just basically tried to run him over,” Jessen said.
Several patrolmen charged the vehicle, pouncing on it and hitting the car with riot clubs to break the windshield, forcing the driver to stop. One officer scrambled through the driver’s window of the moving vehicle and yanked the keys out of the ignition.
Meanwhile, rows of patrolmen, including Jessen, moved toward the crossover bridge. They were nearly in the midst of the crowd when they were again ordered by their commander to stop.
Protesters standing on the crossing hurled bricks into the rows of police officers. One brick slammed a patrolman in the head, breaking the shield on his helmet.
“We only got about maybe 50 feet when they stopped us because of all the stuff that was flying at us.”
The St. Paul commanding officers then ordered the patrolmen to retreat.
Less than a week prior, four Kent State University students were killed by National Guardsmen in Ohio. The St. Paul Police Department wanted to avoid a similar confrontation that could have turned ugly.
“I think our bosses decided that nobody’s really thought out what we were trying to accomplish there,” Jessen said.

Tough decisions
While students and law enforcement clashed on the University’s mall, the school’s president, Malcolm Moos, tried to keep the University running while preventing a disaster.
Peter Hames, West Bank Student Union president during the 1972 demonstrations, was in the president’s home the night a committee gathered to discuss the viability of keeping the school open.
“I think (Moos), like most members of the administration, felt the obligation to keep the University running. The governor told them to do that,” Hames recalled. Moos also agreed with the protesters’ right to demonstrate on the public campus.
Hames and Moos both raised concerns about bringing in the National Guard.
“Sending the National Guard soldiers to keep the peace sends a very important message to students — or to anyone for that matter,” Hames said. “You send soldiers to fight a war.
“They were not well-received by the students.”
The Guardsman eventually did come to campus, bearing unloaded M-16 rifles. By the end of the night, 33 people were arrested and 23 police officers and activists were treated for injuries.
Still demonstrators persisted. The crowds surged to more than 6,000 by the end of the week and, although the campus never officially closed, President Moos was forced to allow students to make up the time lost to the demonstrations, so as not to impede graduation.
The protests, much like the war, ended with no absolute resolution.

University of Minnesota, May 1, 2000
Today, Mike Warner seems like a normal suburban father with a wife and three kids. But, as a University student and Vietnam veteran, he has seen his fair share of angst and bloodshed.
Yet, even if the country still debates the war’s worth, Warner has found peace with his own involvement in the nation’s history.
He sometimes visits high schools at the request of teachers to share his Vietnam experiences.
“I really believe the more information the kids can get, then they can make their decision. It’s like us trying to remember the Civil War. It’s in our past, we heard about it, but we’re not quite sure.”

Craig Gustafson and Tess Langfus welcome comments at [email protected]