'Vietnam: Through the Soldier's Eyes': Sheffield Historical Society's new exhibit gives vets' perspectives
SHEFFIELD — Alan Romeo's introduction to the Vietnam War was baptism by fire.
Shortly after arriving at the U.S. Air Force base in Da Nang in September of 1968, the Long Island, N.Y., native assigned to the 366 Combat Unit suddenly found himself in a live or die battle with the enemy.
"I was in a fire-fight in the jungle between Da Nang and Monkey Mountain — without any combat training," he said.
Romeo survived his obligatory year-long tour of duty, but the health repercussions and emotional scars linger to this day.
All the more reason he was compelled to organize the Sheffield Historical Society's latest exhibit, "Vietnam: Through the Soldier's Eyes."
"I was hesitant about doing the exhibit as I still had nightmares," said the Sheffield resident. "It brought out a lot of bad memories, but it was something we had to do."
The "We" are the other Berkshire Vietnam veterans who contributed their uniforms, military gear and photos on display through Oct. 16 at the Old Stone Store, the society's gallery and gift shop on Main Street.
A gas mask, bayonet, medic's kit, pictures of Da Nang City under fire and other reminders of the Vietnam vets experience in a war that divided a nation.
"There were several veterans who donated materials, but didn't want to be interviewed," said Paul O'Brien.
The Sheffield Historical Society president referring to the handful of veterans who told of their Vietnam experience and life after the war, that exhibit visitors can see and hear on laptop computers with headphones.
Nearly 60,000 U.S. servicemen died or went missing in action in the 1960s and early 1970 — 27 from Berkshire County among the dead. Their names are etched on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C., with the local men honored with a mural on West Housatonic Street and Park Square plaque, both in Pittsfield.
That has left the veterans who came home to recount the horrors of a war they couldn't forget. Romeo is one of the six Berkshirites who survived the Vietnam War willing to tell their war-is-hell stories and how the conflict in South East Asia continues to affect them today.
Romeo, now 68, was interviewed by his 30-year-old son Michael, who he rarely talked to about the war, finding the session therapeutic.
"It broke a lot of ground between my son and I," he said. "We sort of hugged each other."
Romeo waited 15 years after leaving Da Nang before seeking counseling to deal with his personal demons from the war.
For many years he had difficulty dealing with civilian life. Staying employed was difficult as any criticism or barking of orders from superiors reminded him of the military.
"I went through 20 jobs. I just couldn't deal with people," he recalled. "It was like basic training."
Romeo eventually found employment, primarily working alone, doing window displays for storefronts, often traveling to do his job.
"Being on the road by myself was the best thing for me," he said.
Romeo has become more loquacious in recent years, seemingly comfortable talking to The Eagle about his Vietnam War days and beyond.
He is particularly passionate about the exhibit section devoted to Agent Orange, the herbicide and defoliant the military used for 10 years to flush out the enemy from the jungles. Citing medical research, Romeo noted the dioxin is linked to at least 13 diseases, likely afflicting tens of thousands of living Vietnam veterans. For decades, the federal government wouldn't acknowledge the health risk of Agent Orange, with many veterans today still fighting for Veterans Administration for compensatory health benefits.
"As we got older, we got angrier. We knew what [the U.S. government] did to us with Agent Orange," he said.
Since the exhibit opened Sept. 10, it has been an emotional rollercoaster for some visitors — especially other Vietnam veterans, according to O'Brien.
"A few left before seeing the whole exhibit — it was that powerful," he said.
The retired school teacher was in college when he became eligible for the military draft. Fortunately his number was too high in 1971 as the U.S. began to scale back its boots-on-the-ground presence in Vietnam.
Forty-five years later, the war's impact on American society and those who served their country remains forefront for O'Brien's generation.
"It's right below the surface in people's thinking. We still talk about it," he said.
Contact Dick Lindsay at 413-496-6233
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