It’s safe to say that the faces of war never change, simply the context in which those faces appear.
They typically belong to young men. The uniforms might change, from the “steel pots” of Vietnam to the digitally camouflaged Kevlar headgear of Iraq and Afghanistan. The vehicles improve and the weapons increase in their deadly effectiveness. But as battles rage, the faces, regardless of their generation, become steeled to the realities of death and destruction.
This month 40 years ago, United States involvement in Vietnam reached a peak of 543,400 troops, with 33,641 Americans killed. For young newspaper reporter Nancy Lynch of Bethel, who wrote the Wilmington Morning News column “Vietnam Mailbag” from 1968 to 1972, bringing that reality home to stateside readers in the form of letters from soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines was her five-year mission.
Lynch recently paged through those letters, compiling, organizing and illuminating them. Then she got back in touch with 12 of the former servicemen who wrote her most often during those years for her book “Vietnam Mailbag: Voices from the War, 1968-1972,” published last fall.
Included with the letters are photographs of correspondents, as well as pictures illustrating the daily lives of soldiers. Those photos were provided by Doug Elliott of Lewes, a tank crewman and combat photographer with the U.S. Army from 1968 to 1969.
For Lynch, writing the book was a way to bring the experiences and reflections on Vietnam full circle, allowing many of her wartime correspondents the opportunity to offer thoughts on the wars fought today.
“My one ground rule with the column way back when was tell it like it is, and they minced no words. And that’s what they did today,” she says. “And what I found was that their opinions didn’t waver in what they said today from what they were saying about Vietnam 35 or 40 years ago.”
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At the time, soldiers under fire had to face the reality that much about their country was changing in their absence. The column’s first year saw the assassinations of Senator Robert Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the latter resulting in riots throughout many American cities, including Wilmington.
“Many of the letters from that time were about having the National Guard in their hometown,” Lynch says.
At the same time, national sentiment had turned against the war, so when Elliott was offered the opportunity to trade his tank crewman role for that of combat photographer, he jumped.
“Everybody understood that the media placed it as an unpopular war, but I wanted to do something that would recognize the men around me and the job they were doing,” he says.
For the veteran returning home, the war’s unpopularity also meant animosity toward the warriors. It’s one of the areas where Elliott has seen a change of opinion, both for himself and those fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.
He now hears stories of stateside soldiers in uniform being offered free meals at restaurants. He has been approached by people at readings and speaking engagements for “Vietnam Mailbag” who go out of their way to thank him for his service.
For Lynch, the book has revealed to her an immense amount of growth in Americans’ attitudes toward their fighting men and women.
“We treated our Vietnam veterans so poorly when they came home that most of them, when I interviewed them for the book, Vietnam was something they didn’t talk about with anybody,” she says. “Today, although we may not support the war, at least we support the warrior.”