As you enter the exhibit this large mural says it all: We Remember: Ventura County to Vietnam and Back, which is a tribute to the county’s Vietnam veterans

Museum Of Ventura County honors Vietnam Veterans with exhibit

June 24, 2015
Santa Paula News

“The first casualty of war is truth.”

That’s the first thing visitors see when entering the Museum of Ventura County’s newest exhibit, We Remember: Ventura County to Vietnam and Back, which is a tribute to the county’s Vietnam veterans.

The exhibit, which opened on April 10, (closes August 9) is impactful and leaves a lasting impression on anyone who walks through it. The exhibit has artifacts, photos, and video recordings. Anna Bermudez, Curator of Exhibits and Collections, curated this exhibit with documentary filmmaker George Sandoval, owner of WestEnd Productions in Ojai.

“There were 32 interviews done with Vietnam vets prior to the exhibit starting in December 2014,” Bermudez said. “George Sandoval, he’s a Vietnam vet as well, wanted to interview these men before it was too late. He had a list of questions that were compiled and the interviews were from one to two hours long.”

About a month before the exhibit was set to open, it had gained little traction and the museum had only about five items for display before an article was run in the Ventura County Star.

“I keep telling people that I was in a meeting and I came back to a full voicemail box and about 40 emails from different vets,” Bermudez said. “They all wanted to share artifacts, photographs, information. Aside from those 32 [veterans we interviewed], we probably have at least another 50 that are willing to share their stories with us.”

The exhibit was divided up into nine different chapters such as “Eisenhower and the Cold Years” and “The War at Home and the Anti-war Movement” so visitors could follow a timeline of the Vietnam War. The chapters consisted of large images so it would be impactful for people, according to Bermudez. There was a table where people could sit down and read veterans letters, poetry, and journals sent home during the war.

At the entrance of We Rmember, visitors are immediately drawn in with a case that holds medals, a marine seabag, and a pair of combat boots still with mud on them from the jungle. The seabag was donated by a veteran and had not been opened since his return from Vietnam until he heard about the exhibit.

The chapter “Drafted!” gave an insight into what it would be like to enter Vietnam using an enlarged image of a mountain to mimic where soldiers would land. A small scale of a soldier’s hooch was created to show the rooms soldiers had. The hooch is where most of the soldiers were living when they weren’t out in the field. The living quarters included an army cot, reel-to-reel player, flak jacket, poncho, posters, a helmet and anything else a soldier deemed worthy of keeping.There were so many donations of photographs from veterans that one part of  We Remember was a wall of just that. All the photos are from Ventura County veterans and some of the images donated by veterans had not been touched by them in over 40 years. The pictures had no captions, but told a lot more than a thousand words with one only imagining what the daily lives of soldiers were in Vietnam. Images showed mortar blasts, navy vessels, soldiers getting shaves, and gunners strapped to helicopters.

The most moving part of the exhibit is a chapter simply titled “We Remember.” “We Remember” shows the 115 Ventura County veterans who lost their lives in Vietnam. They’re honored with an American flag themed plaque which displays their name, date of birth, date of casualty, home of record (hometown), branch of service, and their rank. The 115 plaques are neatly placed in three rows across three walls. The plaques are complemented by the vet wall where veterans can come in and post awards, medals, pictures of themselves, and anything else they’d like to give to Bermudez.

“This was the hardest part of the exhibit to install,” Bermudez said. “George Sandoval wanted to honor the fatalities that we had from Ventura County because they had never been honored before.”

“Everyone is permitted to remember [the war] any way they want to,” Stefanie Davis, Director of Marketing, said. “We don’t tell them their own story, these are their stories that they’re sharing.”

All the items seen in the museum have been donated by about 40 Ventura County veterans. There are still many more artifacts in Bermudez’s office that could not fit into the exhibit. Only about 50 percent of all items she received made it into the exhibit and they will all be returned once the exhibit comes to a close. The plaques will be donated to the families, but it was also very important to Bermudez that every veteran who donated something be represented in We Remember, so even if they donated one picture it made it into the exhibit.

Nils Rueckert, Vietnam veteran, was one of the first to be interviewed and donate items for the exhibit. Rueckert was in Vietnam from February of 1969 until February of 1970 where he operated on a Vietnamese Navy riverine unit in the Mekong Delta. One of his primary duties was to call in U.S. air support to augment the landing operations and establish base camps for the Vietnamese Marines throughout the Delta.

“I really hadn’t spoken about my experience in Vietnam since I came back,” Rueckert said. “When I read in the newspaper that they were looking for contributors to this exhibit I decided to finally open up for the first time. I went back and dug out slides that I haven’t looked at for over 40 years, all my photographs, my memorabilia.”

Rueckert described how he brought his two grown sons and his grandchildren to the exhibit and was finally able to open up and talk about Vietnam with them. He said that talking about Vietnam was “something you didn’t do.”

“It’s very moving, especially to see this wall,” Rueckert said. “All of these people that didn’t make it back, so many of them are 19-year-old guys. They made the ultimate sacrifice and these are the people who are the heroes, the ones who didn’t make it back. I myself lost several close friends in Vietnam and I’ve seen what their families went through so it’s pretty tough.”

We Remember: Ventura County to Vietnam and Back continues to grow with veterans bringing in different artifacts every day and has been received so well that it was extended until August 9 instead of the original closing date of July 5. Almost 4,400 visitors have come to the exhibit through the second week of June, with 1,400 in the first week it opened.

“It’s been the most well received exhibit we’ve ever had here at the museum,” Bermudez said. “We’ve had more people than any other exhibit in the history of the museum. It’s touched a lot of lives.”

Several veterans have asked if the exhibit will travel elsewhere, but no discussions have taken place yet. Other veterans would like to see it become a permanent installation in the museum and so would Bermudez, but nothing has been finalized.

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