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Documentary ignites painful memories for Vietnam veteran

Posted: October 30, 2017

by Wendy Turrell

 

Vietnam veteran Jim Voltz is a familiar face to customers of Richfield Auto Parts, his prosthetic leg a visible testament to the wartime valor that earned him a Purple Heart when he was only 19. Although Voltz makes it clear he has been living a full life since then – riding motorcycles and even becoming a ski instructor – there are painful memories that will always be with him.

 

Voltz shared some of these reflections after watching Ken Burns’ exhaustively researched new television documentary series on the Vietnam War and the politics and social movements of that era.

 

By his own admission, Voltz was “an unmotivated student” as a 17-year-old, when he dropped out of high school and joined the U.S. Army’s 170th Aviation Company. Voltz didn’t have any firm ideas about the war; he wanted to fulfill a dream of becoming a pilot. When he found he could not pass the eye test for pilots, he became a crew chief for the 170th‘s UH-1 Assault Helicopters.

 

Voltz and his crew would sit around the air base in Pleiku, Vietnam, waiting for the call to provide air support in the Kon Tum highlands in 1969. At first, Voltz flew resupply and Medevac missions. Before long, he was a gunner, providing combat support from the side of the open helicopter.

 

Picturesque village turns deadly

 

“One day, we flew west to a little village in the vicinity of Dak To,” he said. 

 

Voltz remembers seeing it from the air and thinking how picturesque it was. It turned out it was also a “hornets’ nest” of Viet Cong activity. 

 

“We flew two ships at a time,” he said. “The first ‘gun run’ swooped in. … I was on the second, when Viet Cong fire exploded the rocket pod right beneath me.” 

 

The rockets were mounted on the outside of the aircraft, immediately beneath his seat. Voltz was knocked to the floor with a shattered femur in one leg and wounds to his other leg and an arm.

 

The following day, three friends came to see him in the hospital. “They brought what was left of my ‘chicken plate’ [body armor],” Voltz said. “When I touched the center, it crumbled. Three things saved my life: that body armor, the air bag that splinted my leg and the 71st evacuation hospital.”

 

Voltz’s ordeal was far from over. He spent the next 10 months in military hospitals recovering from his wounds; one month in Japan, three at Bethesda’s Walter Reed Hospital and six in Cleveland’s VA Hospital.

 

Curiosity takes him to Kent State

 

In May 1970, Voltz was still recuperating at the VA hospital when he heard the National Guard had arrived on Kent State’s campus to quell student protests against the war. He grew up in Stow, about five miles from Kent, and remembered working on high school papers at the Kent State library. “I was disturbed by the news and wanted to see for myself,” Voltz said. So, still on crutches, he checked himself out and drove to the campus on May 3.

 

“When I got there, I drove around town,” Voltz said. “I saw troops on campus and armored personnel carriers on the lawn of Rockwell Hall. … I was in disbelief that the military was being called out to respond to student protests. I thought back in the [civilian] world things would be dealt with with more judgment and tolerance.”

 

Added Voltz, “I could not not have watched it,” referring to the Burns documentary, although he found the experience “emotionally disturbing.”  

 

“Ken Burns has a wonderful reputation, and I appreciated the multiple sides presented,” Voltz said, adding that to help process the feelings it brought up, “I would watch an episode then stop and think about it and write down some of my emotions and thoughts.”

 

The first episode dealt with the complicated century of French imperialism, Vietnamese politics and the rise of Ho Chi Minh that preceded American involvement in the war. The second and third episodes, Voltz found “depressing” and “discouraging.”

 

“By the time I got to the fourth episode,” he said, “I thought, ’What did we win?’”

 

The sixth episode dealt with the 1968 Tet Offensive by the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong that brought a major series of surprise attacks on military and civilian targets. “After that one,” Voltz said, “I just wanted to weep.”

 

The next episode recounted the political and military strategies of various U.S. presidents and generals. Most prominent was President Richard Nixon’s “Peace With Honor” policy that Voltz said made him feel “exhausted” because of the egos of those in power, who continued to prolong the dying even though they knew there was little chance of winning. 

 

The eighth episode ran the gamut from the My Lai Massacre by U. S. soldiers and its coverup, to the widespread protests at Kent State and other universities. At this point, Voltz said it struck him, ”No one was listening to each other. … I felt the anguish both in Vietnam and here.” 

 

Confirmation of his beliefs

 

The concluding episode was perhaps the most cathartic. The Vietnam Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C., was featured, the “wall of tears.” 

 

“Tears streamed down my face during that one, Voltz said. He attended a reunion of the 170th Buccaneers, a unit that lost 45 men in Vietnam.

 

Voltz has read criticism of the Burns documentary by both the military and media. “These people are all just expressing their opinions, but I think Burns gave the whole picture,” he said. 

 

Like other veterans, when Voltz returned from Vietnam he felt the misdirected anger of many Americans. Voltz said he felt it was “schizophrenic” to blame the soldiers, adding that many vets felt guilty, thinking maybe if they had fought harder they would have won the war.

 

Voltz’s hard-won wisdom came from firsthand knowledge that most citizens were fortunate not to experience. “The whole idea of a policy of ‘winning hearts and minds’ didn’t work and can’t work, when we destroy people’s villages, put them in relocation camps, and they lose their homes.”

 

One compelling memory confirms Voltz’s belief. One day in Vietnam, he and his crew were ordered to accompany an American colonel to pick up a wounded Viet Cong for interrogation. 

 

“We picked up the prisoner in the helicopter, with an ARVAN [Army of the Republic of South Vietnam] medic,” he said. “The badly wounded prisoner was being held in the arms of the ARVAN. I could see the guy was frightened of us and was clinging to his countryman for protection from us. That’s when I realized it was not our fight. It was not our country.” 

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