LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — Vietnam was not a World War, but it was a war the world watched. For many in Arkansas, working on family farms, graduating from high school or starting their own families, it was a world away. Until they volunteered for service or a draft card hit the mailbox, making Vietnam, part of their world..forever.
Travis Case was 22 years old, married to his high school sweetheart and looking forward to starting a family. That all changed when he found himself walking through the jungles of Vietnam, not the farmland of White County.
Now some 50 years later, he is one of many volunteering to walk into the Central Arkansas Library’s Butler Center for Arkansas Studies, to in effect…go back. His first recollection was when his plane landed.
“My stomach is churning,” says Case. “I’m thinking, ‘What’s an old boy from Bald Knob doing over in this country about to shoot at somebody.”
The Vietnam Project is a massive effort to record and archive the Vietnam experience, as seen through the eyes of everyday Arkansans. What they share is real and as raw as war can get. Case has vivid memories of things no one should see.
“It was a horrible night, we had several killed, we killed several of the enemy,” Case recalls. “When the sun came up the next day, we had 23 bodies, not GI’s, but the other people. They brought in a small dozer and dug a mass grave and pushed those bodies in there. You talk about something that will strike your emotions.”
Brian Robertson from the Central Arkansas Library System says it’s a way for generations to look deep inside that point in time.
“It really gives people a better understanding not only of the war as a whole, but the impact on individual Arkansans,” Robertson says.
Brian has painstakingly logged hundreds of hours of interviews and they keep coming.
“As long as guys are willing to talk, I’m willing to listen,” says Robertson.
But sometimes when he contacts a veteran he gets turned down, when they say, “Brian, I left Vietnam in 1967 I really don’t want to go back to it.”
But those who do, become part of the project for educators, students and the general public to discover and better understand.
“All of it assembled online, and by going back to Vietnam, even for a short time, many are getting much more than they are giving,” said Case. “It’s almost a catharsis for me, to be able to put some of these things to rest. My family, maybe out of respect did not ask me about these things. They welcomed me home and then we tried to get on with our lives.”
Brian offers the interview to family members, and it can be an eye-opener.
“They say, ‘Thank you for your interview with Grand Dad, had you not gotten these stories we would have never known anything about them,” says Robertson.
It’s not the first time the life of everyday Arkansans in that war zone were outlined.
On June 20th, 1967, Bob Higgins sat on a bunker south of the Bo Loi Woods and looked over the barbwire to the rice land of the Saigon River Delta.
“I’m just looking forward to getting back to Atkins and working on the family farm,” Higgins says.
Marine and former Governor Jim Guy Tucker was there and recorded that sentiment from an Arkansas soldier. A misdiagnosed medical condition sidelined him from active duty after finishing up at Quantico.
So he took it upon himself to make his own way there as a reporter.
“There is a certain level of insanity and bad judgment. It was just something, just part of me wanted to go see it, and do, and I did,” said Tucker.
In 1968 he put it all in the book ‘Arkansas Men at War.’ and make no mistake, these were not after action sit-downs.
“I went on patrol near Da Nang, we had a minefield out there,” Tucker recalls. “One of the Marines was severely wounded, they got him on a tank, but he was the one I was interviewing.”
He even ran into old friends and depend on their bond in combat.
“A place called Hill 327, south of Da Nang where the Marines’ main base was. I met some of the guys from my platoon coming in from Quantico..and we were attacked that night on the hill.”
The second time he went back–the war was still there, but he saw changes.
“They were focused on coming back other than inside a box,” Tucker recalls. “So while they were unhappy there, and gone through what they went through to survive and then come home to a county that at least ignored the fact they had been there. I never saw any thank yous being handed out by anybody.”
As a veteran, Travis Case has earned the right to vent frustration.
“The politicians hung us out to dry, and around 50 to 52 thousand men and women whose names are on those walls, I think they would agree with me..”
While you can’t put a value on any life lost in Vietnam, the value of being there it seems, is priceless too.
“I’m glad I had the opportunity to do this. I saw a lot of terrible things, but sometimes that helps shape your mind for other things that come along,” said Tucker.
That certainly is not lost on Travis Case, an Arkansan sent there to do a job, that he did well.
“Here’s the deal, I would not take a million dollars for that experience, but I wouldn’t give you a nickel to do it again, but I’m very proud of it,” Case says.
And he is not the only one. To see and hear for yourself what it was like to go from Arkansas to Vietnam and back, click here.