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It’s been more than 50 years since American troops first landed in Vietnam, but to many who served, it seems like only yesterday.

John Price, who was in the U.S. Navy, talked about his earliest experience in Vietnam saying they initially engaged in Naval support missions against enemy targets on the beach. “Many of us on the ship had never experienced close combat and we were seeing the enemy drop, one after another on the beach,” he said. “Many of our men were getting sick to their stomachs seeing the war so up close.”

Price was one of four veterans who told their stories of serving in the Vietnam War during a panel discussion held last week as part of the Sturgis Big Read event. Retired Fort Meade Veterans Administration psychologist Dr. Michael Fellner moderated the discussion which also included Vietnam veterans Bill Atyeo, Marine Corps, J.C. Huckins, Navy, and Bud Kopp, Army.

Huckins recalled that all the explosions on the beach would light up the dark nights. “One of my other first memories was all the snakes, which I hate, and large ants.”

Atyeo said there was a certain smell to Vietnam that he can recall to this day. “It was like rotting cabbage and too much rain.” The smell of death was also ever-present to Atyeo. “We’d never pick up our dead until the operation was over,” he said, “and that smell never goes away.”

Kopp added that the smell of death was so fowl and pervasive that a person could almost taste it.

Price said the smell of death hasn’t left him either. “A plane got hit and couldn’t maneuver so they were going to do a crash landing. We jumped into our boats and headed to where we thought they’d landed. We saw smoke and then a parachute…but the body attached to the parachute was without a head. We were given buckets to retrieve the remains of the men. That smell hasn’t left me to this day,” he said.

Fellner pointed out to the two dozen people in attendance that the effects of war on veterans is longterm and that it can be very difficult to talk about. “But it is good for them to talk about it, even if it takes years,” he said.

Price said he hadn’t been able to talk about his experiences until recently. “When I returned, my way of coping was to self-medicate on alcohol. I also went through three marriages. I finally got mental health counseling at Fort Meade and it has become easier for me each time I tell my story. In telling my story it lends credence to the horrors of war. My mission now is to share my experience so our soldiers coming back from Afghanistan and other places seek treatment.”

Kopp said he’d just as soon be by himself. “Being here and talking opens wounds.”

“All I told my daughter,” said Huckins, “was that there were things I went through in the war, and that’s it. When I first started opening up was with friends on a hunting trip. There are just some things you experience that you have guilt about.”

Atyeo said he was very affected by the PBS documentary series The Vietnam War. “It brought back memories, some good and some bad, and the camaraderie. We sometimes treated the Viet Cong as gophers,” he said with tears in his eyes. “We didn’t think of them as people, but to hear what they had to say in that documentary was important.”

An audience member wanted to know how it was for the veterans upon their return to the United States. None felt they were prepared for the protests.

“There was little communication with us,” said Kopp. “We were not aware there were protests against the war back home. I first experienced it when we landed at the San Francisco airport.”

Atyeo said when they landed at Los Angeles they were not allowed to deplane because of all the protests. Instead, buses from Camp Pendleton were dispatched to the airport. The soldiers then boarded those buses on the tarmac. “We were even told we couldn’t wear our uniforms off the base,” Atyeo said.

At the conclusion of the discussion, those in attendance took the opportunity to thank the veterans for their service – something they wished could have happened 50 years ago.

Editor’s note: This event was dedicated to Keith Marshall, a Big Read Committee member, who died Sept. 13. Marshall, a U.S. Army medic in Vietnam, was originally scheduled to be a member of the panel.

Editor’s note: Another panel discussion, on posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), will be held at 7 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 26, in the Meade County Commissioners Room in the Erskine Building, Sturgis. Dr. Fellner will also moderate this discussion.

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