Mention Vietnam veterans and many — thanks to Hollywood and literary depictions — still picture maladjusted loners closer to biker-gang members in resemblance than soldiers.

Richard Gaurkee of Cleburne, a clean-cut professional, married with children and grandchildren, displays none of those traits. He hopes to change that perception and said he’s heartened by attitude changes toward veterans over the past 20 years.

“When I got out in the early ’70s we were told never to list Vietnam veteran on a resume,” Gaurkee said. “No one would hire you. The impression was that we were all radicals and misfits back then. Even veterans at the local [Veterans of Foreign Wars] didn’t accept us.”

Things are better now, Gaurkee said. Most veterans proudly list their service on resumes and many hold high spots among Fortune 500 companies.

“From the mid-1980s on you began to see change and more acceptance of vets,” Gaurkee said. “Even then, and now, many still don’t want to talk about it except with other vets.”

Despite such acceptance, Gaurkee feels the journey is far from over and that the full story of the war demands to be told.

Gaurkee described himself as a “regular blue-collar kid” growing up in Wichita Falls in the 1960s. Gaurkee participated in ROTC during high school and his father was a veteran. So, he said it wasn’t much of a leap from high school to the United States Army where he served from 1968-71 as a chief warrant officer flying a DUSTOFF aircraft, which is a Medivac medical helicopter.

“It was go to college or get drafted in those days, and I couldn’t afford college, so I joined up to keep the draft from catching me because I wanted to pick my field,” Gaurkee said. “The Army was the only branch that would let you fly without a college degree. I wanted a future, an education, to learn to fly and, originally make the Army a career.”

Patriotism also played a role in Gaurkee’s decision.

“The Tet Offensive in ’68 convinced us that anyone who could go and serve needed to,” Gaurkee said.

That is a statement some would find odd since Tet marked the moment many began to doubt America’s involvement in the war.

“Well, that depends on where you were,” Gaurkee said. “Texas had less resistance. I don’t recall much anti-war sentiment in Wichita Falls at the time.”

Any thoughts of a military career ended in 1971 when Gaurkee was released and sent home thanks to the reduction in force program as the war wound down.

While in Vietnam, however, Gaurkee likened his job to that of a glorified taxi driver flying medics into dangerous areas.

“We only went in when it was serious because helicopters, obviously, attract attention,” Gaurkee said.

Flying an unarmed craft under Geneva Convention rules as noncombatants didn’t prevent Gaurkee from being shot down five times. Once, he counted more than 100 bullet holes in his downed helicopter but said no crew member ever got hurt on any of his missions except for a soldier who broke a leg jumping out of the helicopter as it was landing.

Gaurkee said he picked up Americans and Vietnamese, including those from the North and sometimes landed while the fighting was going on. Vietnam offered other dangers as well.

“Monkeys came running out when they smelled blood from the wounded,” Gaurkee said. “Sometimes they threw rocks. Then, there were tigers, snakes and bears; it was a jungle after all.”

Many veterans received a raw deal in the years immediately following the war according to Gaurkee. Most came home individually instead of in groups to public indifference, a far cry from the heroes welcome afforded World War II vets 30 years earlier. Media reports stressing only the bad and none of the good hardly helped either, Gaurkee said.

“Regardless of whether people think the war was right or wrong, we went in with the best intentions to help a country from being run over,” Gaurkee said.

As for Vietnam films, Gaurkee said while movies like “Platoon” and “Full Metal Jacket” relay some truth, they hardly tell the entire story. The only Vietnam movie to receive thumbs up from Gaurkee is “When We Were Soldiers.”

“It’s just the war from the grunts view,” Gaurkee said. “It’s not about was the war right or wrong.”

Gaurkee said when he attended Texas State Technical Institute in the early 1970s the majority of his class were veterans and all were proud of the positive things they did.

Gaurkee became active in the Vietnam Helicopter Pilots Association. From there he began visiting schools to talk to children about the war.

Members of the VHPA began developing the National Vietnam War Museum around 1998. Gaurkee said to his knowledge the only national monument to Vietnam is the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C. Although is has a museum, it is dedicated more to the history of the wall than the actual war.

The National Vietnam War Museum, should it come to fruition, would be located in Mineral Wells. Gaurkee said Vietnam is known as the helicopter war and most pilots trained at Fort Wolters in Mineral Wells. He said if placed in a big city such as Dallas or Chicago, the museum would likely get lost. Gaurkee admitted, however, that politics play a huge role and that Mineral Wells isn’t exactly a huge tourist destination.

Still, the museum has plenty of support from politicians to actor Harrison Ford to Adrian Cronauer, the former Air Force disc jockey of “Good Morning, Vietnam” fame.

What it doesn’t have yet is money. The land has been acquired and many of the displays donated. Of the needed $25 million needed, slightly less than $1 million has been raised, according to Gaurkee.

He said once they reach $5 million and people see they are serious, the rest will fall in place, but he admits the museum’s reality remains far from a done deal at this point.

Veterans support it almost unanimously, Gaurkee said. The only opposition he encounters is from those who don’t think information on war protests belongs. Gaurkee went on to explain that the museum’s purpose is to record the story of not just Vietnam but of the era.

“We’re only going to tell the stories of the people who were there,” Gaurkee said. “But we allow and support debate.”

Gaurkee said the museum board means the era, not just Vietnam. For that reason, stories of mothers and wives on the homefront, protesters and those involved in the 1960s civil rights struggles are as welcome as military personal in the field.

Another problem, Gaurkee said, is that the museum’s focus is currently top heavy toward helicopters. Some see the project as a helicopter museum, which couldn’t be further from the truth, he said.

“We need people from the Navy, Air Force, Marines and Coast Guard,” Gaurkee said. “Other branches of the service can help us. We want to do this right.”



On the Web:

www.nationalvnwarmuseum.org



Matt Smith can be reached at 817-645-2441, ext. 2339, or msmith@trcle.com

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