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VIETNAM: Service With Honor: Dan Harry was shocked by 'the living room war'

VIETNAM: Service With Honor: Dan Harry was shocked by 'the living room war'

From the Collection: Vietnam series series
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SIOUX CITY | Dan Harry remembers the irate girl who punched him in the chest with her fist a few weeks after he returned from a nearly 20-month tour of duty in Vietnam.

"Are you one of those baby killers?" the stranger angrily asked Harry, who was then a fellow student at Omaha Art School.

"Yeah, you didn't tell anybody you were a Vietnam War veteran back then," he said last month, cringing at the memory more than 45 years later. "You never knew the reaction you'd get."

A Hawarden, Iowa, native, Harry was drafted into the U.S. Army shortly after his 1968 high school graduation, putting his plans to attend art school on hold. Instead, he was sent to military police school and boarded a plane heading to Vietnam's southeast coast.

"We flew out of Anchorage, Alaska, where there was so much snow on the ground that guys had to hold on to the hangar in order to make it to the plane," he remembered. "Then, we flew to Okinawa, Japan, where the temperature was in the 30s."

From there, Harry landed in Cam Ranh Bay, between Phan Rang and Nha Trang.

"Both the temperature and the humidity must've been in the 90s," he recalled. "Welcome to Vietnam, I thought."

Like most of those he had grown up with in Hawarden, Harry didn't have an opinion on the political ramifications of the war.

"I remember reading about guys who moved to Canada in order to avoid the draft," he said. "At the time, I thought escaping to Canada took more guts than going to Vietnam."

Harry said he never entertained the thought of heading up north.

"No way, my dad was one of the (World War II) soldiers who landed in Normandy (France) on D-Day (in 1944)," he said, shaking his head. "My dad would've killed me."

Harry simply did his job, which included transporting injured Vietnamese prisoners while stationed in An Khe, in Vietnam's Central Highlands.

"I was on the highway patrol, traveling on (the main highway) QL-19 between An Khe and Quy Nho'n," he said. "Between the land mines and the Viet Cong, you were always on guard."

Approximately seven months into his tour, Harry was reassigned to a safer role: managing an enlisted men's club, booking musical acts and running the bar, on the An Khe U.S. Army Base.

In addition, he was able to indulge in his art by creating a caricature of a road runner -- the symbol for U.S. Army Special Forces Group, of which he was a member.

"Initially, I signed for a 14-and-a-half-month tour," he said. "Instead, I enlisted for an additional five months."

Returning to the United States in December 1969, Harry said he was shocked by what people thought of "the living room war."

"Everybody got to see all of the overseas atrocities, every night, on the evening news," he said. "That never happened before Vietnam and, to be honest, it hasn't happened since."

While Harry's return home was warmly received by his family as well as his wife, Jeanne, he said he never forgot the reaction from the girl he met in art school.

"You weren't allowed to be proud of Vietnam," he said in reflection. "It was a war that wasn't winnable, and we were trying to fight people with a very different mindset than ours."

Indeed, Harry said he didn't feel good about his service until he saw Oliver Stone's 1986 movie, "Platoon," which was based on the experiences of a U.S. Army infantryman during the Vietnam War.

"The movie didn't get everything right," he allowed, "but it was close enough."

Even though he seldom shared his Vietnam experience with his family, Harry still keeps a scrapbook of faded wartime photos in the office of Harry Heads & Auto Machine, a Riverside service shop he's owned for more than 25 years.

Along with those is the landscape and wildlife art he produced before, during and after his military duty, and a photo of a young woman. It's a picture of his daughter.

"Amy died (of complications from lupus) on Jan. 15, 2002, at the age of 31," Harry said softly. "She was the only daughter Jeanne and I had, and we still miss her every day."

As he looked through scrapbooks of his art, Harry said he knows of many Vietnam vets who've suffered from symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. 

"It happens late at night, I understand, when you can't get the memories of the past out of your head," he said. "I had those feelings when Amy died. It's when you want to turn your brain off, but you just can't."

Harry remained quiet for a moment.

"I was lucky because I had my family, my art and a business to take care of," he said. "Other guys didn't have it as good as I did."

Glancing at a photo of himself standing in front of the Road Runner Club in An Khe, Harry couldn't believe how young he looked.

"I looked like a kid back then," he said, somewhat wistfully. "I guess we were all kids."

Asked if he is proud of his Vietnam War service now, Harry nodded.

"It seemed like it took a long time but, yeah, I guess I am," he said.

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