In a recent workshop, Sharon Kardon, Communications Manager at the Behringer-Crawford Museum, shared this story about their recent exhibit Vietnam: Our Story. We think it’s a moving example of the power of the arts to bring people together and provide opportunities for personal growth through creative expression.
On a frigid day last December, James Birkenhauer sat in a folding chair in the education center at Behringer-Crawford Museum, looking into the eyes of his interviewer. It was 45 years and nearly 9,000 miles from his stint with the U.S. Marines in Vietnam.
But, despite time and distance, he remembered. And he told.
The former Corporal E-4 from Union, KY, told of flying from California to Da Nang in 1968 and landing in the middle of the night over an active firefight. He talked of traversing the Ho Chi Minh trail, finding and identifying enemy targets. He recalled befriending another corpsman from Northern Kentucky, losing track of him and reuniting years later.
And he spoke of being terrified from the moment he arrived in Vietnam to the moment he left.
Birkenhauer was one of nearly two dozen Northern Kentucky Vietnam veterans who shared their memories and emotions for the exhibit, Vietnam: Our Story, which ran at BCM from November 2013 to August 2014. Its goal was to give the veterans a voice, to put the far-away war into a context that civilians and family members could understand, and to preserve their experiences for future generations. The exhibit included personal and historical artifacts, uniforms, maps, photos and video.
But it is the words of those who were there that have the most impact. The words of those who returned, and of the families of those who did not. The words which were recorded as oral histories and displayed on video and text panels within the exhibit. The words that many Vietnam veterans were unable to voice in the aftermath of a hellish war, not even to their families.
Birkenhauer’s words tell a story that was repeated in many forms throughout the exhibit. He was wounded in combat on May 10, 1969. “One night around midnight, an attack started. Every time I would fire, they would answer with machine guns. Finally, they threw a hand grenade in my position and I was hit with shrapnel,” he said. “I was trying not to pass out. I was afraid if I passed out, I would die. ” He was flown to a field hospital, then back to his company. Finally, on Sept. 1, 1969, he was shipped home. “I had lost 30 pounds,” he said. “It was difficult to believe you’re leaving there standing up and in one piece.
In 1997, nearly 40 years after he left Vietnam, Birkenhauer returned with 11 fellow veterans. One night, they all stood around a bonfire at Mutter Ridge, drinking toasts to those who couldn’t be there. One member of the group proposed they say the Lord’s Prayer for all the Marines and of the North Vietnamese soldiers who died there. Afterwards, several North Vietnamese who were nearby shook their hands. “They told me they never thought they’d see 12 Christian Marines praying for dead Buddhists,” he said,
How did his Vietnam experience affect Birkenhauer’s life after the war? “I’ve had every imaginable emotion about it,” he said. “I’ve been angry. I’m sure at times I’ve had survivor’s guilt. I hope it has made me a much more compassionate person.”
Then he added, “There is an old Asian proverb: ‘The glory is not in those you kill, the glory is in those you save.’ I believe that’s true. That’s what I know about war.”
After the Vietnam: Our Story exhibit opened at BCM, Birkenhauer and his family were among the more than 16,000 visitors who experienced it, learned from it and remembered. Several veterans who had declined to participate changed their minds after they saw how it was presented and the impact it had on viewers, and came to the museum to record their own histories.
When asked why he had agreed to tell his story for the exhibit, Birkenhauer paused. “Well, I have three daughters. I’ve never told them.” He paused again, clearing his throat, then in a low voice: “Now I’m never going to have to tell them.”