For many veterans of the Vietnam War, coming home was not about waving flags, proud friends and relatives, and open arms, as it was for the two veterans of Iraq who I helped to welcome home. Vietnam vets often felt, and were indeed treated, like pariahs even by family and friends. As Wisconsin veteran Bruce Canny told me recently, “Back then it was more or less to your advantage to keep it secret.” He recalls being shunned by one of his wife’s relatives, though they later became close.
It has been fifty years since Dow Chemical, the producer of napalm, was driven from the UW-Madison campus by the war’s opponents while, from towns across Wisconsin, men like Canny were being shipped to Vietnam – destined to come back changed, or not at all. One Wisconsin town has become a special place of memory and healing for Canny and many Wisconsin veterans. Neillsville, in central Wisconsin, is home to The Highground Veterans Memorial Park, founded in the 1980s by a Vietnam veteran in fulfillment of a battlefield promise.
The Highground is not the typical war memorial. Unaffiliated with any state or federal agency, this 155-acre park built by veterans speaks for and honors the full range of experiences of and perspectives on war. As a gradually evolving project with no single preconceived plan, it has come to include individual memorials to most of the major wars fought by this country with tributes, as well, to women veterans, to families of veterans, and to Native American Vietnam veterans.
It is perhaps the fact that The Highground strives to be open and staffed day and night, every day of the year, that best captures the nature of the community that has collected around it, and their commitment to making it a place of healing. Veterans gather regularly for events, and come from considerable distances for a few days or even weeks at a time to help staff the facility, encourage visitors to ring the replica Liberty Bell, walk the miles of trails that include a handicapped accessible tree house, or go to the Learning Center for programs.
Canny began visiting Neillsville after he joined a Vietnam veterans group in Waukesha in the 1980s. For twenty years, he had kind of put his war experience away, he says. That began to change, and phrases about the war began to come to him. Over time the phrases, which he had kept jotting down, became “Vietnam, They Ask, So What Was it Like?,” a poem that took Canny years to share even with his family. He also shared it with June Abrahamson at the Highground. To his surprise, she included it in a photography exhibition she was developing with photojournalist Marissa Roth, called My War: Wartime Photographs by Vietnam Veterans.
Like Canny’s poem, the photographs in My War – all taken by veterans during their tours in Vietnam — offer a way to understand the war from the perspective of men who fought it. It is a welcome addition to the more familiar visual narrative of iconic, highly dramatic war photos by professional photojournalists. The snapshots in the exhibit capture the more mundane moments — guys having a beer with buddies, goofing around outside a tent, or walking through a village market. One of the most memorable images is from a film roll. Soldiers on a beach are playing with a few Vietnamese children. The camera suddenly lifts from the beach scene to the sky overhead, where American bombers flash past toward a forested mountain range in the middle distance. Seconds later, a series of flashes is visible as the aircraft bomb the mountainside. On the safety of the beach, the men and children continue to play.
Fifty years later, the Vietnam war can feel unresolved – for men and women who served, for their families, for folks who protested or who supported the war. It is a set of experiences and a moment in history around which The Highground has shown that it is possible to gather, reflect, and search for healing. As Bruce Canny said, “I didn’t have real strong opinions about [the war] at the time. It was mostly a question, was it right or wrong? It was kind of like the best way to find out — to go over there and find out. And I still don’t know if it was right or wrong.”
Since Vietnam, the public narrative about US military action overseas has increasing distinguished between the men and women who fight, and the politics of those military actions. The separation of the fighters from the politics has made it easier for Vietnam veterans to take pride in their service in a war that so many Americans opposed, and to express that pride publicly. And as we have seen with My War, there is more space for veterans to talk about the politics and ethics of war in all their complexity.
The My War exhibit, which received a grant from the WHC in 2016, has gained national attention, a point of pride for everyone involved. It will be traveling in Wisconsin and out of state. At The Highground, the work continues. At the WHC, we’re so glad to have played a part.
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